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Will Ichiro Be a Mariner in 2008?

I've been dealing with one of those internal monologues on whether or not I wanted to post these next few articles. My general feeling was that I was being too negative. I wasn't necessarily happy with the fact I couldn't think of anything good to write and the age old adage of "if you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all" kept ringing in the back of my head. Needless to say, rational thought won out and this will be the first of a few posts that look beyond the disastrous off-season and into 2007 and beyond. So without further ado...

Ichiro is, well, Ichiro. He's an amazing talent on the field and he's the most marketable player the M's have had since Junior. He helped a Mariner nation forget about A-Rod, RJ and Junior. Through a variety of ways, he's made a ton of cash for the owners. His influence opened the door for other Japanese players to make their pilgrimage to the Major Leagues more than any other player before him. Quite simply, he's the best investment and player the team could have ever hoped for.

At 33, Ichiro has made it very clear that winning is his top priority. Last off-season, for the first time in his tenure, we caught wind that Ichiro was unhappy. We learned that he felt the team lacked leadership (without naming names) and a commitment to winning. He's made the comment that he doesn't know how much time he has left in baseball and how he wanted to play for a contender before he was done playing. Of course, he mention that he wanted the M's to be a contender.

Ichiro's as frustrated as he's ever been and, I believe, there is a good chance that Ichiro will be playing elsewhere in 2008. Here's why:

  • Ichiro's agent, Tony Attanasio, mentioned earlier in the off-season that he will not approach the Mariners about a contract extension for Ichiro. He made it clear that they would listen, but they were comfortable going into the season without a new contract. Bavasi rarely talks about contracts with the media and is really good about defusing those contract questions so it's impossible to know where the M's stand. I'm sure they will talk extension with him, but is it possible that Ichiro wants to try to win a ring in the Major Leagues before he retires and might seek greener pastures?
  • Gary Matthews, Juan Pierre, JD Drew, Vernon Wells. $10 million, $9 million, $14 million, $18 million. Big money was given to center fielders this off-season and of course Carlos Beltran in the 2004 off-season (7 years, $119 million). While part of me wants to believe that Ichiro's slide to CF was because he was a team player and wanted to do whatever he could to help the team, I see his sudden willingness to slide over as a contract driven decision.

    Ichiro will make $13.5 million in the final year of his contract in 2007 (which by this markets standards, turns out to be a bargain). If the CF market stays similar to what it was this season, how much is Ichiro worth going forward? 3 years, $54 million? What about 4 years, $80 million? Ichiro fills two key roles for a ball club (CF and leadoff) and is one of the best at both. Who knows what he might fetch on the open market and you better believe his agent is fully aware of that.

    And what about a hometown discount? The M's didn't get one last time and with the current pathetic state of the organization; definitely don't expect one this time around.

  • Adam Jones and Jose Guillen. The 21 year old CF is one of the bright spots in this team's future and he'll be starting his second season in AAA this season. If his progression continues on the same path, he could be ready to start collecting full time AB's by the end of the year or at worst, the start of the 2008 season.

    Jose Guillen was brought in to fill the void created by Ichiro shifting to CF for 2007. He's a risk, but if his elbow is healthy and he puts together a solid season, the M's hold a mutual option for 2008.

    How does this factor into the M's decision making process? They have a young kid who is just waiting in the wings and a RF on the roster with an option for 2008. If Ichiro starts to price himself out of the M's market and does decide to move on, they've got options.

  • The 2008 budget is already tight, with nearly $64 million paid to nine players (including YuBet). Factor in the likely multi-year deals or significant raises to guys like Putz, Lopez, Betancourt, Broussard (if he's still here), Ramirez and your easily approaching the $75 million-80 million mark on thirteen players. Throw in the possible Reitsma and Guillen options and you're closer to $90 million.

    Yes, a lot can happen between now and the end of next year. Salaries could be dealt or added, signed or released. But assuming that everyone who is currently under contract for 2008 returns, there isn't a lot of wiggle room in the budget.

  • There will be a new front office staff and manager in 2008. Let's be honest with ourselves for a moment. While this team could surprise and win 90+ games this season, it's just as likely that the club struggles to win 70+. Let's assume that we split the difference and this team wins 80 games. That's not going to allow Bavasi and Hargrove to keep their jobs and the possibility remains that Lincoln and even Armstrong get the boot.

    With a new front office, will they share the same affinity with Ichiro? Will they want to take the front office in a new direction and shape the team in their own vision? Will Ichiro be a part of that vision? These are all questions that no one has the answer for. Hell, I'm not so sure that if the team collapses, that Ichiro will still be here in August.

It's difficult to envision a Mariner's team without Ichiro at the top of the line-up card and patrolling the outfield. While I've always been a fan and will always be a fan of Ichiro, I'm not so sure that signing Ichiro to a large extension is currently in the best interest of the team. With the current internal options that are available and the difficulty that may arise with the payroll constraints, it may be difficult to justify giving a 33 year old a long-term deal. But then again, the marketability that Ichiro brings to the M's is huge.

Will the M's make a baseball decision or will the M's make a business decision? Or better yet, does Ichiro even want to return? Time will tell.

Update [2007-1-12 17:5:7 by Trent]: There is a Japanese article today that apparently talks about Ichiro leaving at the end of the season. I can't read Japanese and the internet translation is almost as difficult to decipher as the Japanese itself. I personally didn't see this article until about thirty minutes after I posted this morning, so my intent wasn't to start a mass panic thread. Just something to think about.