Geoff Baker covers the Mariners for The Seattle Times. He provides daily coverage of the team throughout spring training, and during the season.
June 18, 2008 5:31 PM
Posted by Geoff Baker
So, like many of you, the explanations I kept getting for Ichiro's sudden move to right field from center weren't really adding up. Yes, his happiness is a concern and stuff. But it was a concern late in 2006 as well, since he hadn't yet signed a $90 million contract extension to keep him here. Didn't stop the team from moving him to center back then. Hence, logic dictates it shouldn't have prevented the team from keeping him there this time.
Maybe this whole Ichiro in center thing wasn't working from both sides of the equation? I thought I'd take another run at it during John McLaren's pre-game scrum with reporters today. Late in the session, I asked McLaren about the coincidence in timing between the firing of Bill Bavasi and the move of Ichiro. McLaren still reads the blogs...some of them, anyway. He knows what's being written and said. So, he had some things he wanted to spell out. To clear the air, so to speak.
"I had actually talked to Ichiro when we came back from New York, because I have had this idea for a while,'' McLaren said. "Again, it's not that he can't play center. But he's always been the best right fielder in baseball for me. I've always had that thought in the back of my mind. I've always had that thought, that, at some point, that's where he belongs.
"Nothing whatsoever has been dictated from up top,'' he added. "Nothing. Ever. Bill never did that. Lee hasn't done that. Howard and Chuck haven't done that. They've left me alone. I respect that and I appreciate that. But the Ichiro thing is something I've been thinking about for a long time and I just went with it. I just went with it.''
OK, that's the first part. Fair enough. But the Yankee Stadium game, if you'll remember, is where Ichiro had a fly ball to right center drop between him and right fielder Wladimir Balentien for the game's ultimate winning run in the eighth inning after Seattle had taken a 5-2 lead into that frame. How much did that play -- and some others this year where balls have dropped in to center -- impact McLaren's decision to think about a shift of Ichiro?
"I knew he didn't see that ball good but that wasn't the deal,'' McLaren said. "It was just something I'd been thinking about. Timing was just such that I just talked to him when the plane landed. It wasn't that ball so much. I'd been thinking about that. I actually thought about it last year a little bit. There's something about 51 out there, that's where he belongs.''
Did Ichiro have to think about playing center field too much, I asked McLaren. Did he have to focus on defense and did it take away from other aspects of his game?
McLaren went on to say: "As soon as I said it, his face lit up. He got a sparkle in his eye.''
At that point, Ichiro walked over to the dugout for one of his bats.
"Right field, huh?'' McLaren called out.
"Yeah,'' Ichiro said, smiling and nodding.
"That's what he did, right there,'' McLaren told us. "That's exactly what he did right there. There was no b.s. about it. As soon as the question was presented to him and I saw his eyes, I knew it was right. I was going to do it, but I wanted to show respect to him, telling him what I was thinking. And as soon as his eyes lit up, there was no explanation to it.''
McLaren was then asked whether he sensed the position might be wearing Ichiro down.
"That was a little bit of the thought process, to be honest with you,'' he said. "That's a big chore out there, to cover that ground.''
But there's more. This part is very interesting.
"There were some other things that I thought about too,'' he said. "Over the last two years that I've seen, just to put our cards on the table here, he takes so many balls out there that I think the other two (outfielder) guys -- whoever they are -- from last year to today, they think that he's got everything. And sometimes they think 'Well, he's got it''. Well, he doesn't have it. So, this way here, it takes a little pressure off that. Everybody's got their turf out there to go get it.''
Very interesting indeed.
I still think the Mariners are going to go shopping for either a new left fielder or center fielder. Wladimir Balentien's best position is probably in left field, not right. Having him there day-to-day next season, with Jeremy Reed as a fourth outfielder, or in a platoon, or whatever, makes some sense. I don't see Reed playing center every day. He hasn't hit well enough to be an everyday guy. Neither has Balentien, but he's got some time to improve. Should be an interesting few months ahead.
But at least, today, we've done away with the idea this is all about Ichiro's happiness. The team wasn't happy with the results it was seeing. Ichiro's overall numbers have declined. The corner guys were relying too heavily on him. And frankly, he may have slowed down just a tad out there. If this team can find a good defensive center fielder -- one who can hit decently, if not like Vernon Wells -- it may be better off. It will still lose some power in the outfield corner, which was the reason Ichiro was moved in the first place and Jose Guillen brought in last season. That said, the club has already lost considerable offense from Ichiro this year. Maybe this changes things. Hey, the team can't get much worse.
But, at least, we have a little clearer rationale for the move.
2 Hanley Ramirez SS
27 Jeremy Hermida RF
3 Jorge Cantu 1B
17 Mike Jacobs DH
6 Dan Uggla 2B
26 Luis Gonzalez LF
18 Wes Helms 3B
12 Cody Ross CF
58 Mike Rabelo C
39 Ryan Tucker RHP
51 Ichiro RF
3 Jose Vidro DH
4 Jose Lopez 2B
28 Raul Ibanez LF
29 Adrian Beltre 3B
9 Jeff Clement C
44 Richie Sexson 1B
8 Jeremy Reed CF
5 Yuniesky Betancourt SS
41 R.A. Dickey RHP