Last year, Ichiro Suzuki had his worst season. The Seattle Mariners right fielder and future Hall of Famer hit .272, 54 points below his lifetime average. He also had an OPS+ of 84 and -0.4 WAR and failed to win a Gold Glove or top 200 hits for the first time in his career, the ageless wonder finally starting to look like a player pushing 40. The Mariners have been through this before with Ken Griffey Jr., and if past experience holds, this only gets worse for Seattle.
There are two options for the Mariners. They can hold onto Ichiro and keep paying him $17 million a season until the franchise icon retires– in fact, there’s talk of him hitting third for Seattle this year. But there’s a better option, one I wouldn’t hesitate on if I was the Mariners general manager. If I’m Jack Zduriencik, I call the Athletics and swing a deal.
Sounds impossible and illogical for Oakland, I’m sure, a team seemingly in a holding pattern while it awaits approval to move to San Jose. The A’s have a projected $38 million budget for Opening Day, little hope of contending with the Rangers and Angels this year in the American League West, and as a kicker, no less than seven outfielders that could see playing time. Then there’s Manny Ramirez who could join the A’s lineup as a 40-year-old designated hitter in late May after he serves a 50-game suspension for his second positive test for performance enhancing drugs. There’s a definite logjam in Oakland, but nothing’s set in stone, either. Nothing in Oakland ever is, really, with Billy Beane baseball’s version of that neighbor who manages to hold a garage sale every weekend.
Certainly, the A’s would need to clear roster space and make the dollars work in a trade for Ichiro, perhaps cribbing off the deal the Pittsburgh Pirates recently pulled to get A.J. Burnett and have the Yankees pay roughly 60 percent of the $31 million he’s owed. But there’s incentive for the A’s here. In the offensive wasteland that is Oakland Coliseum, Ichiro owns a .364 lifetime batting average in 418 at-bats, compared to .326 at Safeco Field in Seattle. Even last year in the midst of epic struggles, Ichiro hit .351 in Oakland while batting just .261 at home. Playing a full season with the A’s, Ichiro could be a .300 hitter for a team that’s had just two the past six years.
Then there are the fan implications. I attended an early season game in Oakland last year on Japanese Heritage Day (which happened to come against the Mariners, coincidentally.) The amount of Asian fans in the stands there to cheer A’s designated hitter Hideki Matsui was stark. Matsui was on and off with his play in his only year in Oakland, yet another left-handed power hitter not ideally suited for the vast confines of the Coliseum, and while it doesn’t make sense to bring him back, the A’s could use another drawing card. Enter Ichiro having a resurgent, All Star season. Depending on how much of Ichiro’s contract the Mariners are willing to eat for the right assortment of prospects, the A’s might even turn a profit in this arrangement.
Oakland could get a boost in the standings as well, perhaps enough to hang as a dark horse wild card contender. Even now, the team has more depth and talent than may be available at quick glance, with Brett Anderson, Dallas Braden, and Brandon McCarthy potential keys to an experienced, capable starting rotation, and Cliff Pennington and Jemille Weeks the core of perhaps the most underrated infield in baseball. Were Ichiro to start in right field, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to think that he, Coco Crisp, and Yoenis Cespedes might comprise one of the best outfields in the majors, at least defensively.
The question may arise why Seattle would be willing to part with Ichiro, potentially the first Hall of Famer to spend his entire career with the Mariners. Simply, it comes down to dollars and the logic, or lack thereof, of paying $17 million to a player who’s sub-replacement level at this point playing in Seattle. Everyone wins in this arrangement. The Mariners get something for a player they’d otherwise get nothing for, the A’s get a boost, and for Ichiro, there could be new life in Oakland. Left unsaid in all of this is that playing for the A’s, the man currently at 2,428 hits might have a shot at 3,000.