The Seattle Mariners find themselves in a precarious position just 19 games into the 2018 season and trying to snap the longest playoff drought in the four major North American pro sports.
They’re off to a decent start at 10-8 despite losing three of four to the Houston Astros early in the week and have a winning record on the road. By all accounts, the M’s and their fans should feel good about where the team is headed right now.
There is even good news available, as outfielder Ben Gamel rejoined the team from the disabled list for a right oblique strain.
Ariel Miranda pitched admirably against the Astros on Monday before being sent down to activate Gamel, and will be ready for recall when the M’s need him.
Catcher Mike Zunino made his season debut on Friday against Texas, while pitcher Erasmo Ramirez and 1B Ryon Healy may be back in the next week to 10 days as well.
The Mariners are just about as healthy as they’re going to be all season.
So what’s the concern?
The Mariners are ninth in runs per game in the American League and 10th in home runs. They need every bit of offense they can muster.
Gamel will be a shot in the arm, but the M’s are still carrying a little-used, light-hitting, lefty-swinging outfielder they feel they need to replace defensively in tight games.
Yes, I’m talking about 44-year-old Ichiro Suzuki.
The M’s signed Ichiro prior to the season in a panic, really. The outfield situation was a mess, with Gamel on the disabled list and scheduled to be out until the first week of May. As a fifth outfielder and left-handed pinch-hitter on the roster, Ichiro appeared to still have some limited viability.
But early on this season, Ichiro has looked every bit of his 44 years, slashing a paltry .212/.212./212. He’s 7 for 33 with no walks, no stolen bases, no RBIs and no extra-base hits over nearly the first tenth of the season.
And now, whether because of an incredible resiliency or urgency regarding other options, Gamel is back two weeks ahead of schedule.
As currently constructed, though, the team has only three backup position players because Nelson Cruz can’t play the field anymore and Dan Vogelbach is very much first-base only, handicapping manager Scott Servais when it comes to roster flexibility, giving a regular a break or late-inning strategy.
Simply, the M’s could use some punch on the bench and some utility afield rather than a slap-hitter who is a defensive liability.
By all accounts, Ichiro is well respected in the clubhouse by players, coaches and management, which only muddies what should be an easy baseball decision.
The Mariners don’t want to push Ichiro to the curb this early in the season, and it’s hard to imagine another MLB team taking a chance on claiming him off waivers or via trade. And if he cleared waivers, would the great and proud Ichiro even consider a minor league assignment? Probably not.
No one involved wants Ichiro’s storied big-league career to end this way, but it may be unavoidable.
The fact that the move wasn’t made ahead of Monday’s series-opening game against Houston, or on Tuesday, when Seattle sent down Taylor Motter to active Miranda for his start, or later in the week when they activated Gamel, illustrates the dilemma GM Jerry Dipoto faces: make the ballclub demonstrably better or spare the aging icon the embarrassment of a DFA.
Ichiro is an all-time Mariners great and first-ballot Hall of Famer. But it’s time.
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