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Seattle Mariners

Commentary: Julio Rodriguez’s extension keeps one of MLB’s brightest stars shining with Mariners

By Matt Calkins Seattle Times

We can talk about droughts all we want — and we sure talk about them often with the Mariners. Few fans need reminding that they haven’t made the playoffs in 21 years.

But one drought the M’s never seem to have is one of star power. And they’re about to lock down a star that may be one of the brightest in their constellation’s history.

The Times confirmed reports Friday that the Mariners are finalizing a deal that will keep All-Star rookie Julio Rodriguez in Seattle through at least 2029, guaranteeing him more than $200 million. Should the center fielder perform up to his stratospheric standards, the M’s could pick up a team option that keeps him here well into the 2030s and pays him upward of $450 million.

It’s a Godzilla-vs.-King Kong-sized extension for Rodriguez, whose bat and baserunning has given this club its best shot at reaching the playoffs in more than a decade. And barring injury, a surprising performance dip or an even more surprising trade, it ensures the Emerald City will continue its tradition of having a nationally recognized — make that internationally recognized — name roaming its baseball field.

Rodriguez has drawn many comparisons to Ken Griffey Jr., whose statue greets fans at the front entrance of T-Mobile Park. Not just because they play the same position, but because of a magnetism that extends far beyond the Evergreen State.

When the backwards-hat-wearing Griffey came along in 1989, he made baseball cool with his swing, style and scintillating skill in the outfield. ESPN’s Kenny Mayne wasn’t lying when he called him “the most popular player in all the land!” in an old “SportsCenter” commercial.

Junior was transformational — but is hardly alone in the Mariners’ assortment of all-timers. Playing alongside Griffey was Edgar Martinez, a Hall of Fame designated hitter with his own statue outside of T-Mobile. There was Randy Johnson, whose first of five Cy Young Awards came in Seattle, where he was borderline unhittable for a five-year stretch. And, of course, there was Alex Rodriguez — perhaps the most talented of all — whose departure made him a permanent enemy in the 206, but whose ability dazzled the diehards in his five seasons in the Northwest.

However, Griffey, Johnson and Rodriguez were all removed from the Mariners by the end of the 2000 season — either by trade or by choice — ostensibly setting up an era of obscurity. But then along came Ichiro in 2001, when he won American League MVP as a rookie before setting MLB’s single-season hit record three years later en route to 10 consecutive All-Star appearances. Joining him was Felix Hernandez, who won a Cy Young, twice led the AL in ERA and pitched MLB’s most recent perfect game in 2012.

Were the Mariners reaching the postseason? No. But they possessed some of the game’s titans, which later included second baseman Robinson Cano, who signed with the M’s in 2014 before making three All-Star Games and finishing in the top eight of the MVP voting twice.

But the club (justifiably) dumped Cano before the “step back” season of 2019, when the team’s star power was nil. While brainstorming ideas for the Mariners’ preview section during a Times staff meeting that year, writers joked that it should have an interactive game in which two guys’ mug shots are placed next to each other and have fans guess which is the Mariner and which is the random dude.

Well, they aren’t randos anymore. Signing 2021 AL Cy Young winner Robbie Ray last offseason was one thing. As was acquiring ace right-hander Luis Castillo at the trade deadline. But those guys aren’t Julio. Rodriguez’s dancing-in-the-batter’s-box charisma, near peerless swing-and-swipe ability and no-moment-is-too-big mentality make him one of the most electrifying players in the game. And now he’s here to stay.

The Dominican who hit 63 home runs in the first two rounds of the Home Run Derby? He’s going to be signed long-term in Seattle. The AL Rookie of the Year front-runner who just became the 10th Mariner to hit 20 home runs and steal 20 bases (he has 23) in a season? He’s going to be signed long-term in Seattle. The 21-year-old with a team-leading 4.3 wins above replacement who socked a home run in his first two games after coming back from a wrist injury? He’s going to be signed long-term in Seattle.

No baseball player can single-handedly lead his team to success. The Angels’ Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani may be the two biggest talents in MLB, but that team has been a longtime cellar dweller. But a healthy Rodriguez gives fans — home or away — a reason to show up to the yard any time he steps on the field.

No, a star wasn’t born in Seattle this week. But when Rodriguez’s contract is official, it will make sure that a star — like many Mariners before him — shines in the same place for years to come.