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Ichiro Suzuki to the Seattle Mariners, Re-imagined in 1997

As the anticipation for Shohei Otani builds, an investigation of what might have been had the Mariners signed Japan’s greatest MLB star at age 23.

Ichiro Suzuki #51

There is no shortage of regrettable moments in Mariners history. Bad trades, bungled negotiations, and abject misfortune pockmark the landscape of Mariners fandom, and 2017 has had its fair share of misery and mediocrity already. As a team, there has only been one successful stretch of time in the franchise’s 40 year history, from 1995-2003. When it comes to individuals, however, we have been blessed. Players like Randy Johnson, Robinson Canó, and Alex Rodriguez are all either in, or potentially bound for, the Hall of Fame and spent significant portions of their careers with "Seattle" across their chests. Ken Griffey Jr., Félix Hernández, and Edgar Martinez have been scintillating to watch too, yet the star I grew up with more than any of them was Ichiro. 5’11, 175 lb Ichiro Suzuki, who I shared little more than a handedness at the plate and a hat design with, was my hero and favorite player from 2001-2012. The 27-year-old rookie led the 2001 team that rode a wave of extraordinary speed, defense, and unexpected career years to 116 wins.

But what if he’d arrived sooner?

Ichiro signed with the Orix Blue Wave at age 18, and played nine seasons for them, during which time he had a career .353/.421/.522 slash line and racked up a measly 8.12% K-rate. He won seven straight batting titles, and in 1997 he lasted 216 consecutive plate appearances without striking out. Understandably, many MLB teams were interested in him, but before they could acquire him the Blue Wave first had to agree to post him. The posting system is a player transfer system that exists between Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) and MLB; its purpose is to ensure that NPB teams receive appropriate compensation for players who wish to leave and play in the major leagues. The posting system has undergone several adaptations, but at the beginning of the 21st century it was still in its infancy. From 1998-2013, MLB organizations were notified of a player’s posting and given a short period of time to submit a "silent" posting bid, to earn the ability to negotiate with the player himself. The team with the highest bid won exclusive rights to negotiate with the player.

In Ichiro's case, the Mariners paid the Blue Wave $13.25 million to negotiate with him, beating out two other teams for the posting bid. They subsequently signed the then-27-year-old outfielder to a three year, $14 million contract. When the Mariners acquired him, he had the potential to be the first Japanese position player to play in the major leagues. In his first year in the majors he was named both AL Rookie of the Year and MVP, and played in the first of his ten All Star games. He was unique, supremely talented, and his presence in Seattle irrevocably altered the Mariners franchise for the better.

Ichiro Suzuki #51

Today the posting rules are different. It is more common for players to request to be posted earlier or, due to recent changes to the international pools, could be encouraged to sign contracts right out of high school, circumventing the NPB altogether. OF/P Shohei Otani of the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters is the most prominent example of a player likely to have a vastly different experience than Ichiro when he first was posted, yet his impact could be similarly seismic. In his age 21 season, Otani posted a .322/.416/.588 line, to say nothing of his pitching dominance. Otani’s 23rd birthday was yesterday, and he appears to be an even more tantalizing prospect than Ichiro was at the time of his transition to the MLB. Otani has the frame more traditionally associated with a star outfielder, standing 6’3 and somewhere between 190-200 lbs. His pitching seems likely to overshadow his hitting, but nonetheless 30 teams will lust after Otani, dreaming of a carnation just opening its petals, arriving from overseas to bloom before their very eyes.

At age 23 Ichiro Suzuki was just finishing his third straight full season in the NPB and had just won his third straight MVP award. Had Ichiro, Orix, and the Mariners been able to orchestrate a more agreeable (and hopefully less ultimately tragic) version of the deal Hideki Irabu and the Chiba Lotte Marines worked out with the Padres and Yankees, Ichiro could have joined Seattle in the beginning of his prime and changed the face of a team that underwent a series of facelifts prior to the turn of the century. Re-imagining the 1997 Seattle Mariners with Ichiro Suzuki requires a casino’s worth of cards to fall in place, but what a flush it would have been.

The 1997 Mariners were the best team the organization had ever fielded to that point. As our own Amanda Lane recounted hauntingly, it was supposed to be the opening of a contention window, yet for Griffey and Johnson it would be their second and final taste of the playoffs in Mariner uniforms. A young Ichiro Suzuki changes that equation. The Mariners entered 1997 with the 10th highest payroll in the MLB, around $46 million. Although the famously parsimonious front-office might have balked at using $2-5 million annually to lure Ichiro and/or convince Orix to part ways with him, Woody Woodward stated that the expected budget was around $50 million. Perhaps another move would have been necessitated, such as shedding the contract of Paul Sorrento ($1.5 million) or Norm Charlton ($2.9 million), but Sorrento had capable replacements including Mike Blowers, while Charlton, understandably a tough sell considering his track record, would end up below replacement level in 1997, reminding us all to never trust relievers. The money could have been found, and in the Nintendo-funded sandbox I invite you to play in with me, it was.

Playing time, too, could be found. Pitching was the most obvious hole in the 1997 roster, but the Opening Day lineup below reveals the greatest limitation in the lineup existed in left field.

Baseball Reference

Ken Griffey Jr. had the finest year of his career in center field, a demigod with his own chocolate bars. He was irreplaceable. Right fielder Jay Buhner was 32 and never boasted exceptional defense, but his arm was strong and his bat was stronger. He could play left or right if needed, and could have ceded to Ichiro’s demonstrable defensive wizardry. Lee Tinsley seems the odd man out, and his .197/.263/.279 line in 49 games that year indicates he was. Top prospect Jose Cruz Jr. was brought up to replace him, yet the need for pitching was so great that Cruz was dealt midway through the season for relievers Mike Timlin and Paul Spoljaric (some things never change). Inserting Ichiro, either in left field or in right, would have instantly created one of the greatest defensive outfields in the history of baseball. Placing the perpetual baserunning pest of Ichiro in front of A-Rod, Griffey, Edgar, and Buhner is as tantalizing a fantasy as Mariners fans could re-imagine.

Ichiro in 1997 was not the player he would become in 2001 yet, of course. It’s plausible his learning curve would have been more steep as a 23 year-old than at age 27. His age 20 season and age 26 season in the NPB are almost identical, however, and the consistency and speed with which he played were nearly unrivaled in any league. The window, however, changes. There is no reason to suggest that Ichiro’s appearance would have had any bearing on Randy Johnson’s departure, but his emergence as a star would have certainly provided the Mariners with an extended window of success. With Griffey at age 27 in 1997, Rodriguez at just 21, and Ichiro at 23, The Mariners could have generated more competitive rosters through the end of the millennium and into the early 2000’s. Ichiro in 1998 means more rest for Jay Buhner’s legs, fewer Brian Hunter plate appearances in 1999, and the possibility of a Rickey Henderson/Mike Cameron/Ichiro Suzuki outfield in 2000.

Royals v Mariners
Less Desi, more Rickey
Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

In 1997 Ichiro could have been the difference between an early playoff exit and a deep run. Saving the Mariners from the disasters of ‘98 and ‘99 is a lofty demand, but we saw enough wizardry in his 12 years in Seattle to learn nothing is impossible. Amazingly, Ichiro got to play with Griffey, Edgar, and A-Rod at separate points in his incomparable career.

Division Series - New York Yankees v Baltimore Orioles - Game Two Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

The images look as strange today as they did at the time.

Chicago White Sox v Seattle Mariners Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

They are frames containing splotchy memories that are as real as any other moment, yet hint at an achromatic, wistful possibility that was unfulfilled.

Angels v Mariners

In the morning following a game that was the living embodiment of taking a fully charged punch from Donkey Kong in the gizzard, I think we all deserve a bit of space from this moment. Instead, join me here, out on the porch with a tall glass of ice cold lemonade, dreaming and re-imagining a window that could have been.