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How Do You Solve a Problem Like Ichiro?

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MLB: Seattle Mariners at San Francisco Giants D. Ross Cameron-USA TODAY Sports

I didn’t, and don’t, mind the Ichiro signing if you make certain background assumptions about the club’s intentions (namely, that they wouldn’t keep him for the whole year) and preparation (in advance, with Ichiro, for the inevitable day when we have four better outfielders.) Is he good? No, as painful as that still is to write. But as long as the club needed another outfielder, he fit well enough compared to the available free agent options and is a better clubhouse addition and probably not worse on the field than our AAAA fill-in guys. At the very least, the difference between any of them for a dozen games was not really the difference (even for a team with thin margins like Seattle) between playoffs and home in October.

With the end of Ben Gamel’s rehab assignment, though, it’s the end of the line. Depth is depth, and you should always keep depth on hand where possible and reasonable, but something must be done. As a matter of necessity, the Mariners’ roster spent the offseason and the season to date in a funhouse mirror room. Look at that fat bullpen! Look at all those first basemen! Look at those… five outfielders? Enough is enough; this team can’t carry five outfielders for the entire season. If they can keep Ichiro in the organization without carrying five outfielders, great; if not, they need to follow through on one of those background assumptions and engage the exit strategy that should have been prepared the day the signing was announced. This day was always coming.

Send Ichiro Down

Gamel is only coming off the 10-day DL, and we have open 40-man spots anyway, so while Ichiro would assuredly clear waivers (sigh), they don’t even need to send him through the ugly ignominy of designation for assignment to get him to Tacoma. This would be a neat way to keep Ichiro around, let him tutor younger players (hello, Ian Miller), and have him available should they need an injury fill-in later. There’s just two problems: roster space and consent.

Tacoma is currently carrying five outfielders. Yes, one is Ben Gamel, but they still have five outfielders if they send Ichiro down and, uh, I guess they might need somewhere to put Jayson Werth soon? Ichiro and Jayson Werth fighting for playing time in Tacoma is just not something I thought I would ever put down on paper two months ago.

Then there’s the bigger problem. Once a major league player has five or more years of service time, his club cannot assign him to a minor league team (subject to certain exceptions like a rehab assignment) without his consent—and he could elect free agency if the club did assign him. It’s hard to imagine the rightfully-proud Ichiro, who was reportedly prepared to return to Japan until Seattle signed him, taking an assignment to AAA. It’s possible this is something the club worked out with him in advance; it certainly should have been a point of discussion prior to his signing. Regardless, between the roster crunch in Tacoma and the need for Ichiro’s consent, it’s difficult to see this one happening unless it’s so that he can elect free agency.

Likelihood: 5%

Work That 10-day

Ichiro got a late start to his year by only signing in March. Then, because—follow me closely here—he is 44 years old, he was hobbled by a sore calf that limited his spring training at-bats. You can plausibly argue he isn’t nearly as bad as his 14 wRC+ and iffy defensive play so far on account of the calf. Heck, you don’t even have to believe it, if you’re the Mariners. It just has to be plausible, and it is. This gives them an opportunity to keep him with the team for a while for those #veteran #intangibles, then send him out on a rehab assignment after a little rest and maybe some good stretching exercises. This allows a graceful landing of sorts, but it only postpones the inevitable; I don’t know that the club is really going to keep Ichiro on the DL the entire year, and if he’s going to be available in the event of another injury, he needs to be playing—and any rehab stint is capped at twenty days. Also, if we’re going to use Ichiro as the first call-up, no matter what, why are we still rostering John Andreoli and Kirk Nieuwenhuis? Give us our Italian/Dutch Adult Sons, Mariners.

Likelihood: 30%

DFA Ichiro

Look, technically this is an option, but they don’t need to (they don’t need the 40-man spot) and if Ichiro doesn’t want to go to Tacoma, he doesn’t want to go to Tacoma, and designating him for assignment is… not going to help. Call this move “The Griffey” if you want, because it might end up that ugly.

Likelihood: poop emoji

Send Down Guillermo

Look, this would be ridiculous. It’s tough enough that they’ve given Ichiro as much playing time as they have, but actually getting rid of the one left fielder who’s shown a pulse so far would be… well, I would be upset. That said, I have this weird feeling it might happen. You are all very entitled to meLLtdown if this happens, honestly. You have my blessing. (Sorry, comment mods.)

Likelihood: 10%

Carry Five Outfielders

Sigh. We already have a quote from Jerry Dipoto this week indicating they’re ready to do this. I am not one to take many things he says on subjects like this as gospel—while I remain a big proponent of his tenure, he is a remarkably adept public representative of the club, and that includes his ability to do what I will generously call spin iffy moves that are the often the result of requirements from above. Saying he’s going to carry five outfielders could just be public spin in advance of another move because he is, after all, Jerry Dipoto, and creative roster moves are what Jerry Dipoto does. Looking over the options, though, and at least for a time I don’t see which of these options is more likely than just… carrying five outfielders. And, uh, not playing one of them? Which should be Ichiro. Yeah, they shouldn’t play Ichiro.

Likelihood: 55%

I don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow. The club currently appears to be painted into a corner. The thing about this corner, as I have already said a couple times and as we all have said for a month and a half, is that it was really, really, really easy to see this one coming—like, traffic jam on a snow day with an overturned tanker and fuel spill on I-5 easy—and so I do still think the club must have had a discussion with Ichiro and prepared an exit strategy. Without knowing the particulars, though, we can’t really say what that strategy is. The anticipation is so great!