When the Mariners signed Raul Ibanez to a one-year contract this past winter, the front office had a specific plan in mind for his function as a member of the ballclub. "Raul is the ultimate professional both on and off the field," said manager Eric Wedge, who subsequently added: "his veteran presence will be invaluable to our younger group of players." General manager Jack Zduriencik echoed the sentiment: "In Raul we have a player and person with outstanding leadership skills... we will give Raul the opportunity to come in and... add an additional veteran presence to this ball club." Clearly, the men in charge of rostered personnel saw Ibanez playing largely as a reserve, and as a player whose place on the team was justified by his contributions off the field as much as his play on it.
Still, the signing was divisive among fans and analysts. Many were happy to have Ibanez back in the fold, but others worried that Ibanez didn't fit on the roster, and that the attempt to shoehorn him onto the club would cost Casper Wells his job. Personally, I thought it was a defensible signing for a rebuilding team. Plenty of executives strongly prefer to have a veteran presence in the clubhouse, and as long as the elder statesmen doesn't get too much money or too many years, I don't have a problem deferring to their reasoning. Since Ibanez signed for a reasonable salary and wasn't inherently blocking anybody (the M's, of course, could have kept Wells by cutting Jason Bay), I didn't have an issue with it.
Besides, even though Ibanez didn't have an obvious place to play regularly, there was reason to believe he could help the team in spurts on the field as well as in the clubhouse. Ibanez had always hit right-handed pitching well, and if deployed correctly, he could augment the offense as a pinch-hitter and during sporadic starts.
The problem is that the role Ibanez was supposed to fill and the job he's actually been given are completely different assignments. After all three Opening Day outfielders went down with injuries within the first ten games, Ibanez has been thrust into a more or less full time role as the club's starting left fielder against righties. Anyone who has perused Lookout Landing's .gif collection of lawn darts and bad angles knows that he was miscast for the job five years ago: at 40-years-old now, he's blatantly out of position.
Worse, Ibanez has shown some signs that he's not the hitter he once was either. It's too early in the season to give holistic numbers like wOBA much attention but there are some underlying concerns evident in Ibanez's peripherals. Metrics like strike out rate, walk rate, and whiff percentage stabilize fairly quickly (here's a nifty look at how long it takes for certain stats stabilize) and all three suggest that Ibanez is struggling. For a guy with his power, Ibanez has always made a decent amount of contact, and it's troubling that he's struck out in over a quarter of his plate appearances thus far (with a high whiff rate, for him, too). It's just 49 plate appearances, so I don't want to sound the alarm too loudly, but older players have a tendency to drop off the table quickly and it'll be important to monitor his production throughout the year.
In short, the M's need to think of a way to get him out of the every day lineup. Whether he hits or not, he's going to kill the team defensively if he's in left field consistently, and at his age, he might wear out if he's played too often anyways.
The solution does not entail removing him from the team: if the M's were planning on carrying him all year back in March, nothing about the season's first three weeks has done anything to cause Zduriencik to change course. Any roster and lineup changes will have to accommodate Ibanez's place on the team.
The problem is exacerbated by the injury to Franklin Gutierrez. Ibanez received the bulk of his starts when the center fielder was out of the lineup, and I'm concerned that an extended absence from Gutierrez will thrust the aging veteran back into left field on a semi-regular basis. Essentially, the M's need to find a way to replace Gutierrez without using Ibanez, and without dropping him from the roster.
Unfortunately, it's tough to land a decent outfield contributor in April, and there aren't a ton of compelling options to replace Gutierrez available. The best solution would be to acquire a player from outside the organization -- not a star, but maybe a Ryan Sweeney type -- to add depth to the outfield. Ideally, the M's would acquire someone who can play center while chipping in a little offense. Assuming Gutierrez winds up on the disabled list, any addition could be placed on the roster immediately.
Inside the organization, the team's best bet is to recall Eric Thames from Tacoma. Thames, Carlos Peguero, and Julio Morban are the only minor league outfielders on the 40-man roster, and the former Blue Jay is the most prepared of the three to contribute to a major league lineup. He has a career .250/.290/.431 triple-slash -- good for a 97 wRC+ -- and he fares a bit better than that against righties.
Once Thames is on the roster, he can partner in a corner with Bay. It wouldn't be a world beating duo, but both have been roughly league average hitters with the platoon advantage over the last few seasons, and each can play better defense than Ibanez. An eventual alignment of Michael Saunders, Michael Morse, and Bay/Thames in the outfield is the best lineup this organization can field without Gutierrez, and they can do it as early as this weekend without sacrificing anyone meaningful from the roster.
To make room for Thames -- and Saunders, who is expected to return to the lineup on Friday -- the M's will have to demote a player: I'd go with Yoervis Medina. Starting May 2nd, the M's begin a stretch where they play just eight games in 12 days, and they should be able to survive with six relievers over the next few weeks without exhausting the bullpen.
Oh, and the Mariners shouldn't consider removing Endy Chavez from the roster. Even if the team eventually carries five outfielders (plus Ibanez), the M's will need Chavez as a defensive replacement, a pinch runner, and as insurance in center if Saunders needs a day off. Unless the M's can add a center fielder from outside the organization, he needs to stay.
Those changes should take the team through mid-May. If the M's aren't going to carry six relievers forever, they'll have to do more shuffling in a few weeks. By that point though, the team will probably face a very different roster situation. Someone could get hurt, Gutierrez could come back, or any other of a number of things can happen to alter the roster picture. For now, the Mariners should focus on putting their best lineup on the field. Such an order shouldn't regularly include Ibanez.