It is unfortunate that it has come to this.
No fan, teammate, manager or general manager wants to see one of its franchise’s iconic players deteriorate to a level where his play no longer helps the team but actually, in the most sinister of twists, hurts the team.
You can look around the majors right now and see a number of these situations occurring. It is happening with the New York Yankees three fold. Fans there are watching Father Time finally get the best of its superstars. Shortstop Derek Jeter, catcher Jorge Posada and closer Mariano Rivera are showing signs they are a year or two away from retirement.
The scene is nowhere closer for Seattle baseball fans, however, than in their own city where 37-year-old right-fielder Ichiro Suzuki is having the worst year of his career.
Suzuki is in his 11th season in the majors, all with the Mariners. In that time he has become an icon of the city as much as the franchise. Ichiro falls behind only Ken Griffey Jr. in that regard.
Yet after 10 consecutive seasons of 200 or more hits, Suzuki is on pace to fall far short of that mark for his 11th consecutive season here in 2011, somewhere around the 170 hit mark.
Not only are his hits dwindling behind a .265 batting average (thru August 16th), so are his defensive metrics, extra-base hits and RBIs. One could point to Suzuki being on pace for his fewest RBIs in his career (he had just 42 in 2008), fewest total bases (had 265 in ’08, has only 159 to date in ’11) or simply his career worst OPS of .621 this season.
In short, his overall effectiveness as a leadoff hitter — which is his essence — is dwindling. And when you consider that the Mariners are paying him $18 million this season and are on the hook for the same rate next season in the final year of his contract, if he isn’t getting the job done as a leadoff hitter, then what good is that $18 million doing?
Not much. His defense is well below league average to the tune of a -6.7 defensive metric. And if that weren’t bad enough, not only are his offensive and defensive numbers… well offensive for the lack of a better term, his ability to execute fundamental baseball in clutch situations is also offensive.
In last night’s 13-7 loss to the Toronto Blue Jays, Ichiro attempted to bunt for a base-hit with runners on first and second, two outs and the team trailing 10-7. The Mariners had just come through with three consecutive hits and Ichiro was ahead of Luis Perez 2-0. It wasn’t the first time Ichiro has done that — or tried to do it — this season.
Suffice to say manager Eric Wedge wasn’t happy nor in the mood to stick up for the team’s highest-paid and longest-tenured player again.
“In that situation, with two outs, I want him swinging the bat,” Wedge told the Seattle Times after the game and said he talked with Ichiro about it afterwards.
The problem isn’t just that Ichiro is declining or that he commands virtually 20 percent of the team’s payroll. No, the problem lies within the fact that the Mariners are in a youth movement and have accumulated several talented outfield prospects specifically to improve the club.
Mike Carp, Trayvon Robinson, Casper Wells, Greg Halman and Michael Saunders are all 25 or younger (with the exception of Wells who is 26) and look to have a promising future. These are players that can help the Mariners win now — and into the future — at a fraction of the cost of Ichiro. But they can’t succeed if they aren’t playing and by playing Ichiro day in and day out in right field, they take away a lineup spot for Robinson or Wells or Carp or Halman.
Clearly the team needs to rid itself of Suzuki but not only is he under contract for 2012, he is a fan favorite and the lone Japanese player on a team owned by a Japanese man.
It’s easier said than done, unfortunately, and the Mariners brass will have that tough decision on their hands in the remaining weeks of the season as they decide just what to do with their aging former star.
It’s unfortunate but Father Time gets the best of us all. Sooner or later.