SEATTLE — The season is not yet three weeks old, but the Mariners, with roster space becoming a premium as their crowded disabled list begins to thin, are approaching a crossroads with outfielder and franchise icon Ichiro Suzuki.
It’s a small sample size at this point, just 13 games, but it’s hard to watch Suzuki, now 44, without noting the significant decline in his once-magnificent skills.
That he has just six hits in 29 at-bats tells only part of the story. More notable is that fact said contact is noodle weak — his average, his on-base percentage and his slugging percentage are identical: .207.
Even that isn’t the most telling indictment.
That comes from watching Suzuki, a 10-time Gold Glove recipient, flounder in the outfield. Two astounding misplays recently at Minnesota, more than anything, signified the end is near.
This won’t be easy.
Suzuki is a surefire Hall of Famer who has amassed 3,085 hits over 18 big-league seasons since leaving Japan at age 27 after nine star-studded years with the Orix Blue Wave.
His first 11 1/2 big-league seasons came with the Mariners, and it was here, in Seattle, that he became not just a star but a phenomenon.
Suzuki is still revered here — listen to the cheers when he’s introduced — and it amounts to second-guessing to question the Mariners’ decision to bring him back on a one-year deal that marginally exceeds the major-league minimum salary.
Club officials knew outfielder Ben Gamel would open the season on the disabled list because of a strained right oblique muscle and, at the time, outfielder Guillermo Heredia was still battling to return from off-season shoulder surgery.
Suzuki was a reasonable fit as an interim replacement. He batted .255 with a .311 on-base percentage last season in a supporting role for Miami. Note that Gamel (.275 and .322) and Heredia (.249 and .315) weren’t notably better.
When Suzuki made a homer-robbing catch in the season’s second game, it seemed — to paraphrase Toby Keith — he might not be as good as he once was but could be good, on occasion, as he ever was.
That’s getting harder to believe.
Plus, Heredia is now healthy and, further, he is the Mariners’ best defensive outfielder. Even when Suzuki starts, he is generally replaced by Heredia in the later innings.
Gamel also appears fully recovered, although he is still spending time on a rehab assignment at Triple-A Tacoma to sharpen his skills after missing virtually all of spring training. The best guess is he returns Tuesday.
General manager Jerry Dipoto said the current plan, whenever Gamel returns, is to operate with five outfielders.
That seems unsustainable, particularly if the Mariners, as seems likely, continue to operate with an eight-man bullpen.
Do the math. Eight relievers and five starting pitchers (once Ariel Miranda is added Tuesday) leaves room for 12 position players. Nine starting players, a backup catcher, a utility infielder…and room for only one backup outfielder.
Sooner or later, the odd-man out figures to be Suzuki because it’s hard to envision the harsh science of baseball analytics, which increasingly guides all decisions, pointing to any other option.
The obvious rub is this is Ichiro Suzuki exiting the Mariners. For many fans, even those who acknowledge the analytics, it will be a sad time. Whether his departure turns into a public-relations fiasco pretty much depends on Suzuki.
Yes, he still wants to play, but…
As a free agent in the off-season, Suzuki drew no perceptible interest from other clubs until the Mariners, prompted by injuries, saw a fit. It hard to envision increased interest now after what we’ve seen in the season’s early days.
Here’s hoping for a graceful exit as a prelude to the celebration in five years (or so) when Suzuki gets the call we know is coming. From Cooperstown.