Mariners make necessary steps in rebuild process.

Ichiro Suzuki, an icon in the city of Seattle and a future hall of famer. He debuted in 2001 and immediately showed why he’s one of the great hitters of all time. His unique style of hitting while leaning towards first and essentially serving balls the other way were not something North American baseball fans had seen. He was a nightmare for pitchers. They would make the perfect pitch, he would get the bat on the ball and hit a slow grounder behind the mound and beat it out.  He’s had over 2500 hits in the big leagues, over 3800 hits in his professional career(Japan and MLB).

Ichiro was one of the best right fielders we have seen in a long time. His accurate throwing arm was evident his first couple game sin the big leagues. His memorable throw from right field to throw out Terrence Long was a throw that really set up his reputation. It was an absolutely flawless throw. Was a throw perfectly on a line and third baseman David Bell didn’t even have to move his glove much. You did not run on Ichiro, period. He gunned down runners left and right and saved numerous runs. He also rarely ran a bad route to the baseball. You just didn’t see him make mistakes in the field.

Ichiro has won 17 Gold Glove Awards in his professional career. 7 in Japan and 10 in MLB. In 2004 he broke the single season hits record. He was a special, special talent.

With that being said, he’s 38 years old. Mariners are rebuilding and he was really the only everyday position player with a lot of experience. His bat speed had slowed down, his on-base percentage is a career low. The Mariners wanted to move forward without the icon. They did not want to relive the Ken Griffey Jr fiasco in 2010 where they brought him back for a final season and he was a shell of his former self and ended up retiring mid-season. Ichiro would be a free agent after the season, some thought the Mariners may not bring Ichiro back. In reality they would bring Ichiro back, he is friends with the Japanese owner and the Mariners’ front office would have no choice. This was a scenario that general manager, Jack Zduriencik, desperately wanted to avoid. Mariners needed to see what the young players could do.

Ichiro ultimately approached the front office about a trade. On July 23rd the Mariners were finally able to deal Ichiro for a couple of prospects. A lot of people liked the deal for the Yankees. Truthfully, Seattle won this deal. Opened up a corner outfield position and moved on from Ichiro for good. It needed to happen. It was the best thing to happen to the organization in a very long time. Some felt a “change scenery” would help Ichiro. In 9 games with NY it hasn’t appeared too. His average is down from what it was with Seattle. His OBP and OPS(On-base plus slugging) are also down and he’s played in a MUCH more friendly hitters park. Seattle and Safeco Field weren’t the problem for Ichiro, his offensive skills are just deteriorating.

Since the trade, the Yankees have gone 4-5 as a team. 2 of those were hard-fought wins against the Mariners and easily could have lost a series to Seattle.

Since Ichiro was traded, the Mariners have made significant changes to the team. They traded away former closer, Brandon League, to the Dodgers in exchange for two minor leaguers. This was a deal that had to be made. League was traded for Brandon Morrow prior to 2010 season and never really lived up to his potential and in final outing was booed off the field by Mariner fans.

Seattle traded away another reliever, Steve Delabar. He had many issues with giving up home runs, he is a hard thrower but is not someone Seattle needed. They traded him to the Toronto Blue Jays in exchange for Eric Thames. Personally, I really liked this move. Thames hit 12 home runs in 95 games for Toronto last season. This year he hit 3 home runs and 11 RBI in 46 games. He never really seemed comfortable with Toronto. They sent him to Triple-A and he hit .330 and had an OBP of .407 which is very good. Displayed much more plate discipline and hit for a little pop with 6 home runs in 54 games.

Thames will split time in LF with recently recalled Trayvon Robinson. I expect this to end in early September as Seattle will want to take a look at Thames as an everyday LF. He’s hitting much better off lefties this year than in the past with a .276 average against lefties with a .344 OBP. If he progresses with his power and continues to show improved plate discipline, the Mariners may have finally filled a hole that they were missing. A left-handed power bat is what Seattle has been missing and needs. Plays perfectly at Safeco Field that is much more fair to lefties than righties. Thames has the potential to hit .275-280 with an on-base percentage around .335-340 and 25 home runs. It would make the Mariners’ offense shoot from mediocre-average to really good with emergence of youngsters Michael Saunders and Kyle Seager and they will definitely each get much better. Both are still very young.

Another move was sending once prized prospect, Justin Smoak, back to the minor leagues. It was a move that was a long overdue. Happened the same day Ichiro was traded and it was well deserved. He had the lowest batting average(.189) and lowest OBP(.253) of any regular first baseman in all of baseball. He was a disaster at the plate. Often looked lost and overmatched. Mariners brought up Mike Carp off the DL to take his place. Carp had a great year last year but has struggled with injuries this season. Since coming off the DL though, he’s hitting .333 with a home run and 6 RBI and playing some tremendous first base. With another 2 months likely at first, Carp could be playing to be the permanent first baseman with Justin Smoak struggling in the minors. He’s earned the opportunity.

All these moves have paid dividends for the M’s. They’re on a 7 game winning streak and are 8-2 since dealing Ichiro and 8-1 since sending Smoak to the minors. They no longer have multiple guys in the lineup who are “sure outs” and have become a very fun team to watch.

The Mariners are on a 7 game winning streak and have averaging 5.3 runs per game on the streak and allowing just 2.4 runs per game. They’re playing fundamentally sound baseball. They’re moving runners along, no longer blowing golden scoring opportunities to score like they were earlier in the season. They’re getting clutch hitting up and down the lineup. 4 of 5 runs in final game of the 3 game sweep over the Blue Jays were with two outs. 6 of last 7 runs scored have been with two outs. This just wasn’t happening even 3 weeks ago. Amazing what making some changes will do to a struggling team. Mariners also set a team record with a 2.73 team ERA for the month of July. Next closest was nearly a full run worse. Seattle’s defense as always has been spectacular. Had Seattle not stuck with Chone Figgins for whole month of April as well as stuck with Hector Noesi as a starter and Brandon League as a closer as long as they did, the M’s probably would be over.500 and in the wild card race. They’re 7.5 games back of the wild card but doubtful they can leapfrog 6 teams to get it. They’re a very young team that is learning how to win. Slowly but surely they’re starting to get it.

The Mariners next off to the Bronx to start a 9 game road trip where they go to NY, Baltimore and Los Angeles. Easily the toughest road trip of the season. If they can stay hot against those clubs and go 7-2 on the road trip, it may be time to start taking the Mariners serious THIS season.

Regardless of how the trip goes, the Mariners have the brightest future for the organization since Griffey and A-Rod left. They’re young and talented at key spots, a couple good moves here and there and Seattle will be back in the playoffs very soon. Should be an interesting final two months for the Mariners. Could set up for a memorable 2013 season if the development of the young talent continues and a key bat is picked up in the offseason. A few weeks ago the Mariners looked so far away from contention, it feels different now.

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