Opining from Japan, where he is witnessing what appears to be an Ichiro homeland deification, Art Thiel of Sportspress Northwest presents an interesting dilemma the Seattle Mariners will face at some point in the next several months: whether to re-sign or wave sayonara to one of the unique players in modern baseball history. Talk about complicated.
Ichiro is entering, at age 38, his 12th major league season -- and his contract year (he will earn $18 million over the next six months). Given his age, salary, decline in production in 2011, and the fact the Mariners need to stick to their plan to develop younger players, Ichiro would not seem to fit the profile of a player the Mariners would want to offer a contract extension.
But Ichiro is no ordinary player. In general manager Jack Zduriencik's own words, Ichiro "is historic."
As Art Thiel pointed out, "Ichiro is the face of the franchise, the only player in Seattle, and among the few in MLB, whose presence alone generates revenue. He represents a nation that MLB thinks is important enough, despite the cost and hassle, to share regular-season games every four years.
"He has reached the place where his best years are behind him, and his future contributions will be lessened. Yet he is within reach of career milestones that he savors and MLB values. He likes it in Seattle."
What if Ichiro wants to re-sign with Seattle? What if Japanese owner Hiroshi Yamauchi, with whom Ichiro has a close, personal relationship, wants him back as well? Can the Mariners' state-side braintrust -- Howard Lincoln, Chuck Armstrong -- really say no?
Our guess is that not only would they not say no, they can't say no. In fact, our guess is that they wouldn't even dream of it. Their own history says so, especially in the context of how they handled the fading careers of the franchise's two primary icons before the era of Ichiro.
Probably against their better interests, but in recognition of his contributions and popularity, Lincoln and Armstrong allowed Edgar Martinez to play for as long as he wanted, which turned out to be at least three years past his prime. They would not have done the same for a player of lesser historical stature.
The trade off, now, is well worth it. Martinez retired as a Mariner and will remain one of the great feel-good stories in franchise history. The Mariners will milk that forever.
Ken Griffey Jr. had become a shadow of his former self when he returned, mostly broken down, to the Mariners in 2009. Had his name not been Griffey, had he not lit up Seattle baseball for a decade, we suspect the Mariners never would have brought him back in 2010. Further, Griffey would have remained on the roster all that year if he hadn't elected to end his career himself.
Ichiro isn't the ball masher Griffey was, but in many ways he's an even more historic player, especially considering his style of play. There are many mashers, but there are very few Ichiros -- or at least there haven't been since the 1930s.
Like Griffey, Ichiro will enter the Baseball Hall of Fame the first year he becomes eligible, and will do so with an array of feats in his resume unmatched in the modern baseball.
But what to do now, and over the next few months? Zduriencik advised to let the season unfold and see what happens. Sounds like a plan. But inevitably, the Mariners will have to confront the question of Ichiro beyond 2012.
Ichiro has become such an icon, and his relationship with Yamauchi is such a complicating factor, that a still to-be-determined transaction -- sign or not sign him -- will not be simple regardless of his age or 2012 results.