We knew last weekend that the Seattle Mariners were signing Raul Ibanez, and the Mariners even took the unusual step of confirming it before it was official. You'll recall the Mariners all but refused to do the same thing with Jason Bay, preferring instead to insinuate and chuckle. So Ibanez was happening, but a spot on the 40-man roster would need to be made, and the MLB offices shut down for Christmas. On the one hand, no one had to be designated for assignment on Christmas Eve. On the other hand, fringe roster players got to experience an apprehensive holiday. Today, we learned that Ibanez was officially a Mariner, and D.J. Mitchell was officially in career transition. Those in the MLB offices returned to D.J. Mitchell paperwork.
Nothing's learned. We knew Ibanez was happening, we knew about his contract, we knew about his role, and we knew someone effectively useless would go away. This was the ordinary course of events. But there are a couple things about D.J. Mitchell, and what better time to talk about them than now?
The first is that I think this drives home the insignificance of the Ichiro trade return from the Yankees. I wouldn't say the news of the Ichiro trade knocked me to the ground, but that's because it was news, not fists. It did catch me completely off guard, in that an Ichiro trade was the one thing I previously felt comfortable declaring to be impossible. That the Mariners wouldn't trade Ichiro was the one universal truth, until it wasn't the truth anymore, and Seattle bid farewell to a franchise icon. He wasn't beloved by all, but he was important to all, and he had been for more than a decade.
It was all about Ichiro leaving, though. It was all about what the Mariners used to have, and not at all about what the Mariners could have next. The Mariners got back D.J. Mitchell and Danny Farquhar, but we didn't talk about them the day of the trade and in fact I don't think we ever really talked about them later on. Ichiro was a franchise icon, one of the most well-known athletes in the entire world, but he had declined to the point at which he was dealt away for a couple non-prospects. The reality of the trade was the symbolism of the trade, and not about its observable, measurable effects. Ichiro was gone, and that was impossibly weird, but Ichiro also wasn't good anymore. He didn't have value on the market.
Farquhar's 25, almost 26, and he isn't on the 40-man roster. In a little over two years, he's been traded three times and claimed off waivers twice. Mitchell's 25, and he isn't on the Mariners' 40-man roster anymore. He posted a sub-3 ERA in Tacoma after arriving, but still he just got designated for assignment to make room for Raul Ibanez. This is what Ichiro turned into. It's odd to acknowledge that Ichiro came to be worth so little, but I guess at least the Mariners got all of his best, which is warming in a selfish sort of way. It's too bad Ichiro didn't get the Mariners' best. Or maybe he did, which would be pathetic.
The other thing about D.J. Mitchell -- as noted, he's 25, and right-handed, and a starting pitcher at the triple-A level. Over more than 300 triple-A innings, he's logged a sub-4 ERA, arguably out-pitching his arguably inadequate stuff. The Mariners, at present, are thin on starter candidates, and less thin at DH/1B. One of the reasons it's hard to figure out how Ibanez fits is because it's literally hard to figure out how Ibanez fits. It didn't seem like this roster spot existed before, and the Mariners are cramming Ibanez in. The Mariners' rotation is still Felix, Iwakuma, Ramirez, and oh, oh god.
Statistically -- purely statistically -- there's an argument to be made that Mitchell is better for the Mariners right now than Ibanez is. Mitchell might be a replacement-level starter. That seems fair to me. Ibanez might be a replacement-level position player. He's been somewhat productive the last four years, but all in hitter-friendly ballparks. He's 40, and though he's defensively experienced, he's hardly defensively skilled. Over the last two seasons, according to FanGraphs, Ibanez has been about replacement-level. Over the last two seasons, according to Baseball-Reference, Ibanez has been well below replacement-level.
If you call Mitchell a 0-WAR pitcher, and Ibanez a 0-WAR position player, Mitchell might be better because the Mariners right now are in need of more pitcher depth. It's at least not completely outlandish, and Mitchell was just designated for assignment so that Ibanez could fit. A week ago, would you have traded D.J. Mitchell for Raul Ibanez? Because the Mariners just did that, unless Mitchell clears waivers and stays in the system. Which, hell, I don't know, he might.
This goes beyond statistics, and it has to in order for Ibanez to make sense. It has to be about Ibanez's leadership, it has to be about the Mariners' confidence that Ibanez can make some of their other players better, now and down the road. If the numbers suggest that Ibanez is worth about 0 WAR, and if the Mariners are aware of how to interpret Ibanez's statistics, then the Mariners must believe some other part of Ibanez's game is above replacement-level, some part we can't quantify. And the Mariners would admit as much. This is a transparent experience add. The Mariners strongly believe that Ibanez is the right guy for this clubhouse.
We'll probably never know how Ibanez worked out, when it's all said and done. I mean, beyond his personal numbers. We'll see how the other players performed, but we won't know how they would've performed without having Ibanez around. If the Mariners are surprisingly successful, Ibanez will get credit, but that'll be unfalsifiable. If the Mariners are unsuccessful, maybe they would've been even less successful without Ibanez. The Mariners are counting on Ibanez to provide value indirectly, which is somewhat bold, and easy to argue against. I'm always a lot more comfortable building around what's pretty well known.
But the Mariners seem certain. The Mariners seem like, to them, Ibanez's value is pretty well known. How much do you trust the Mariners? This is a pretty good test, of that.