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Were There Any Alternatives to Ichiro?

Could the Mariners have signed another free agent outfielder?

Oakland Athletics v Seattle Mariners Photo by Stephen Brashear/Getty Images

The reactions to Ichiro Suzuki’s homecoming have been pretty emotionally charged. Like we saw when Ken Griffey Jr. returned to the Mariners in 2009, the return of this franchise icon has stirred up some passionate responses. They’ve run the gamut from deeply thankful to viscerally opposed. One of the most common critiques has been that there are other, better free agents options the Mariners could have signed instead of Ichiro. Setting aside the obvious off-field benefits to bringing Ichiro back, I wanted to take a look at the available free agents to see if there was a better on-field option.

First, a few caveats. I’m operating under the assumption that the Mariners payroll for 2018 is basically capped out. We’ve been given every indication, but no confirmation, that ownership has tightened the purse strings. I’m also assuming that once Ben Gamel is fully healthy, he’ll be the semi-regular left fielder. The Mariners weren’t going to sign an outfielder to completely replace him when he’s projected to be out for a month of the regular season at most.

With those two things in mind, here’s a semi-comprehensive list of free agent outfielders who were still available earlier this week (including Jon Jay) and their 2018 ZiPS projections.

Free Agent Outfielders

Player K% BB% AVG OBP SLG wRC+ DEF
Player K% BB% AVG OBP SLG wRC+ DEF
Ichiro Suzuki 15.3% 7.2% 0.259 0.317 0.343 81 0.4
Seth Smith 21.2% 10.7% 0.255 0.343 0.439 106 -2.5
Carlos Gonzalez 22.9% 8.6% 0.259 0.323 0.464 104 -1.1
Melky Cabrera 11.4% 6.0% 0.288 0.331 0.429 99 -5.4
Chris Coghlan 22.1% 10.6% 0.245 0.331 0.399 94 -0.5
Andre Ethier 21.3% 9.2% 0.251 0.326 0.406 94 -3.4
Jayson Werth 24.4% 11.3% 0.235 0.326 0.392 91 -3.6
Jose Bautista 24.5% 12.4% 0.215 0.317 0.382 87 -4.6
Jon Jay 18.6% 8.5% 0.269 0.338 0.353 85 -2.7
Justin Ruggiano 26.7% 6.3% 0.232 0.288 0.386 79 -2.0
Dustin Ackley 17.3% 7.6% 0.228 0.288 0.349 72 0.5

Players looking for a full-time role

Carlos Gonzalez
Melky Cabrera
Jon Jay

We know that Jon Jay was looking for an opportunity to play regularly which is why he signed with Kansas City earlier this week. I think we can eliminate a few other names based on this shared desire. Carlos Gonzalez and Melky Cabrera are almost certainly still hoping to land full-time roles for the upcoming season. Both of them are good enough and have had recent success to expect such a role. These three were probably also too expensive for the Mariners. We know Jay was signed to one-year contract worth up to $4.5 million with incentives. The market for Gonzalez and Cabrera has been depressed like every other middle-class free agent but I think any contract they’d be willing to sign would price them out of any pursuit by the Mariners

Players that are too old

Jayson Werth
Jose Bautista

It may seem a little hypocritical to eliminate these two players based on their age when Ichiro is more than five years older than both of them. Even at 44, Ichiro is lightyears more athletic than either Werth or Bautista. It’s worth pointing out that Ichiro has the second highest defensive projection in the group. Their bats may carry a little more value than Ichiro’s, but their defensive liabilities far outweigh that benefit.

Players that are worse than Ichiro

Justin Ruggiano
Dustin Ackley

Both of these former Mariners are projected to be worse than Ichiro at the plate. Ackley (included for the benefit of our erstwhile prospect writer Ethan Novak) projects to be the best fielder of this bunch but his offensive shortcomings are well remembered by Mariners fans. Either would be adequate minor league depth, but certainly not someone that could be counted on as a fourth or even fifth outfielder.

The remaining options

That leaves Seth Smith, Chris Coghlan, and Andre Ethier as the remaining options. I almost considered putting Ethier into the “too old” group but he’s 10 years younger than Ichiro. Still, his long injury history and defensive shortcomings probably eliminate him from contention anyway. Chris Coghlan is an interesting option. His ability to play the infield could have given the Mariners additional flexibility to start the year. He peaked in 2014-2015, posting a 119 wRC+ and accumulating 5.6 fWAR across two years with the Cubs, but he’s posted a 62 wRC+ in the two years since. Bouncing between four different teams in the past two years tells me his value has almost completely cratered. The projections see him bouncing back closer to his performance level from two years ago but I’d be willing to bet that his line from the past two years is much more representative of his true talent level right now.

That leaves Seth Smith. He’s projected to post the best offensive line of this bunch, though his defensive limitations are well documented. Considering the annual value of his last contract, $6.58 million per year, I’m not sure the Mariners would have been able to afford his services. And despite being platooned heavily throughout his career, I’m also not sure he’d be willing to take on a part-time role, even if it guaranteed regular playing time for a month. Still, a reunion with Dad might have been the best alternative to signing Ichiro, based on the team’s current circumstances and the free agent market.

All things considered, signing Ichiro at this point in the offseason was both affordable for the team and filled with off-field significance. The Mariners might have been able to find a player who could outperform Ichiro at the plate but there are a lot of unknowns that muddy that possibility.