Could Ichiro be part of the mass exodus in Seattle?
NEW YORK -- Before he was let go as Mariners general manager, Bill Bavasi was telling his bosses that the team's problem was the players, not manager John McLaren.
Bavasi's bosses must have disagreed. First they fired Bavasi himself. Then they axed McLaren.
But now, with the team buried 19.5 games out in the AL West, the Mariners are finally looking to shake up the roster. As interim GM Lee Pelekoudas, a 29-year veteran of the organization, put it to SI.com, "Everyone's interim."
Technically, that would even include the organization's crown jewel, Ichiro. While three GMs who would have interest in him have not been told he's available, one acknowledged that he's "Mr. Mariner," a status that makes him almost as difficult to deal as his limited no-trade clause.
But if the Mariners really want to shake things up, they should seriously consider trading Ichiro, the international icon who has three tools that are among the best in baseball: his arm, his speed and his ability to hit for average. His negatives are that he appears at times to be playing at half speed and to have more interest in stylin' than anything of substance.
Nor is he very good at setting the tone. Leading off Monday night's game against the Mets at Shea Stadium, he jogged to first on a popup. He did the same later in the game. The Mariners' two straight victories in New York notwithstanding, Ichiro may dragging this team down, if that's even possible, with his superstar-first attitude.
"Maybe I'm being naive. But I'm not seeing it,'' interim manager Jim Riggleman said. "He prepares unbelievably. He works his tail off."
That may be so. But appearances suggest Ichiro could get away with murder. He already has gotten away with a managerial beheading, according to two people familiar with Mike Hargrove's sudden retirement last year. Hargrove's resignation was already suspicious as it came with the Mariners on a seven-game winning streak and only a game out in the wild card competition, and was followed a couple weeks later by the announcement of Ichiro's $90-million extension. These two people with Mariners ties now insist those two events were related.
"You didn't know that? Ichiro didn't want to play for him,'' one of them said.
"That's right," Ichiro's the reason Hargrove's gone, said the other.
Hargrove was paid his contract in full despite what was described as a resignation, which should tell you something about whether it was a normal resignation. He said at the time that he "no longer has a passion for the game of baseball,'' yet is now managing the Liberal BeeJays, a semi-pro baseball team so named not for their political proclivities but because they hail from Liberal, Kans. Pelekoudas declined to discuss Hargrove's resignation, calling it "old news."
Ichiro isn't the only star on the roster that would draw serious interest in trade discussions. Despite the Mariners' stated intention to listen to offers for anyone, one Mariners connected person said he didn't believe that would apply to young ace Felix Hernandez. "He's not going anywhere,'' that person surmised.
That could leave newly acquired starter Erik Bedard as the player with reasonably big value who's most likely to go. The Mariners are "displeased'' with his 4-4, 3.97 performance to date, according to the Mariners-connected person. Bedard hasn't appeared to fit in well in Seattle from the moment he arrived.
But if Mariners management can't bring themselves to deal Ichiro or either of its two aces, the fire sale may not yield as much as they hope.
Pelekoudas remains hopeful that other executives will see the talent in Seattle that was prolific enough to convince many (including me -- oops) to pick the Mariners to make the playoffs, and be willing to talk. "We'll find out," he said. "There are a lot of good players that still have value that others recognize,'' Pelekoudas asserted.
Outfielder Raul Ibanez and third baseman Adrian Beltre are underperforming but may still hold some value, though the Mariners almost surely would have to offset Beltre's $13-million salary. The Angels are a potential fit for Beltre, who like Ichiro and several others also has a limited no-trade clause.
Many other Mariners players now are either drastically overpaid, underachieving, or both. That means the team will be stuck with many of the culprits, or be forced to release them (Richie Sexson and Jose Vidro could fit that bill).
In the meantime, there's more than half a season remaining. Riggleman, who managed many years in the minors, where there's constant turnover, plus seven years combined between the Padres and Cubs, is better-equipped to deal with this than most. "It's a group of good guys playing hard that are embarrassed to be where they are in the standings," he said.