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Will Ichiro go?

Mariners' slow start hurts chances of keeping star CF

Posted: Friday April 27, 2007 11:05AM; Updated: Friday April 27, 2007 11:05AM
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The Mariners have finished last in the AL West for three straight years as Ichiro prepares to head into free agency.
The Mariners have finished last in the AL West for three straight years as Ichiro prepares to head into free agency.

The subject in Seattle baseball circles is Ichiro, as it so often is these days, and whether the Mariners can keep their terrifically enigmatic star happy and in the green beyond this season. Or even beyond July.

The answer to that, of course, is nothing that the great fans in the Pacific Northwest particularly want to hear. The answer, simply, is that keeping Ichiro Suzuki in Seattle is a longshot. And with every frustrating Mariners' loss, the odds of Ichiro staying become just a little bit longer.

Nobody's saying anything definitive yet. In fact, nobody's been saying much of anything lately. Back in February when he arrived in Arizona for Spring Training, Ichiro broached the idea of leaving Seattle after the season, when his current contract ends. It's the first time in a 15-year career, first in his native Japan and now here in America, that he will be eligible to pick a team that he wants to play for, and the idea obviously appeals to him. "I have never had the choice, to choose for myself, which road I want to take," he told reporters in Peoria, Ariz. "So if you ask me is it possible that I will go to free agency -- yes, it is possible."

Ichiro hasn't spoken on the matter since, and his agent, Tony Attanasio, hasn't said much, either. (Attanasio didn't return phone calls seeking comment.) But everyone knows where both player and team stand. Team officials have been clear that they want, in chairman Howard Lincoln's words, to have Ichiro retire as a Mariner and enter the Hall of Fame as a Mariner. Ostensibly, they'll be willing to pay the going rate to keep him in Seattle.

Ichiro, meanwhile, is waiting to see what road the Mariners take, both as it relates to him and to the team. He has stated his displeasure publicly with the downward trek the team has been on the past three years. If the Mariners continue in that direction -- and, so far, they show few signs of reversing it -- the assumption is that Ichiro will be one unhappy superstar and will bolt for somewhere else.

When Ichiro landed in Seattle as the first Japanese position player in big-league history back in 2001, he signed with a team on the rise. The Mariners were coming off a 91-win season in 2000. They were increasing their payroll. And in 2001, they won an astonishing 116 games, tying a major-league mark on their way to running away with the American League West title. Ichiro, an instant fan favorite who has become an athletic and cultural icon in Seattle, played a huge part in the accomplishment, hitting .350, stealing 56 bases and amassing 242 hits, which ranked then as No. 9 on the list for most hits in a season. He won the AL's Rookie of the Year and MVP awards.

That season ended in an AL Championship Series loss to the Yankees, but the Mariners won 93 games in both '02 and '03, though they missed the playoffs both seasons. Ichiro signed a four-year $44 million contract to stay in Seattle before the '04 season, and that's when things started heading south. The Mariners have finished last in the AL West in each of the past three seasons, even as Ichiro has put up at least 200 hits each year, including a record 262 in 2004.

"In Ichiro's mind," Attanasio told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in February, "the team's performance is really measured by his first year. He saw such tremendous enthusiasm in the city that year. He saw great joy in the clubhouse and enjoyed it. He has not seen it since. And he wants that."

The unanswered question is whether Ichiro, now 33, can rediscover that in Seattle. The Mariners have tried to turn things around in the past few years, signing free agents like Adrian Beltre, Richie Sexson and Japanese catcher Kenji Johjima to lucrative contracts. This past winter, they signed free-agent pitchers Miguel Batista, Chris Reitsma, Jeff Weaver and slugger Jose Guillen. They traded for veteran infielder Jose Vidro and pitcher Horacio Ramirez. The team has had some turnover in its decision makers during Ichiro's tenure, too, from managers (Lou Piniella to Bob Melvin to Mike Hargrove) to general managers (Pat Gillick to Bill Bavasi).

Whether all the movement has been enough to convince Ichiro that the Mariners are on the right path is not clear. So the next few weeks -- certainly no longer than the next few months -- may well determine whether the Mariners have a realistic chance of re-signing Ichiro. Attanasio, in his comments to the Post-Intelligencer, even brought up the possibility that his client may not finish this season in Seattle. "If it appears to them that they can't sign Ichiro," Attanasio said, "they might have to trade him. If they didn't, they'd risk just getting a draft choice for him."

If Ichiro eventually hits free agency, the numbers he'll demand will be staggering. Center fielder Vernon Wells signed a seven-year, $126 million extension with the Blue Jays this past offseason. Outfielder Alfonso Soriano signed an eight-year, $136 million deal with the Cubs. Carlos Lee got $100 million from the Astros. Barring an in-season signing by the Mariners, Ichiro will join a couple of other high-profile stars, Minnesota's Torii Hunter and Atlanta's Andruw Jones, as the most sought-after free-agent outfielders on the market next winter.

Ichiro's price tag will include more than what he brings to the table in a baseball sense, more than the steady stream of singles, the speed and the Gold Glove defense. He has become a marketing phenomenon both here and in Japan, and that's something any future employer will have to take into account.


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