With the offseason in the rear-view mirror, it's become clear that GM Jack Zduriencik and the Seattle Mariners will live and die by the youth movement they've assembled—an undeniably double-edged blade.
What isn't so clear, though, is what remains of Ichiro Suzuki's value to the M's.
Is he their leadoff hitter? Not anymore, according to manager Eric Wedge.
Is he their go-to power hitter? Not really, and he's not much of a get-on-base type anymore, either.
The problem is, Ichiro's doing a little bit of nothing at this stage in his career, and it's not likely to improve to the point where the Mariners can justify tossing $17 million at him this year. In fact, Ichiro's a heavy shadow over a budding offense that yearns to grow, and it starts with his inability to take control of the leadoff position.
No, he isn't a great leadoff hitter, and it goes beyond his atrocious numbers in 2011—career lows in batting average (.272), hits (180), on-base percentage (.310) and wins above replacement (-0.4). Ichiro is simply an impatient hitter who places pressure on the lineup around him to compensate for the low number of pitches he takes on a given at-bat.
You could say that it wasn't all Chone Figgins' fault when he was batting behind Ichiro, and to an extent, you'd be right. And actually, Figgins is likely going to bat leadoff this year, which leaves Ichiro's role in even further doubt.
So, as the Mariners wake up from hibernation and the new season roars to life, a monumental burden looms over them to decide how much they need Ichiro.
It's uncertain what the 38-year-old's production will be in 2012, but it's certain that he doesn't fit with the Mariners anymore. Ichiro is not the type of hitter that will ease the growth of a young offense, but he provides a unique weapon to a more experienced contender offense.
Dealing Ichiro would not only net the Mariners a few decent prospects, who would give the team a better chance in the future, but it would also free up right field to give prospects like Casper Wells or Trayvon Robinson (if he can improve his arm) a chance to play. Unshouldering part of his massive salary would be an added bonus and give the team more payroll flexibility.
As much as I'd hate seeing Ichiro and his phenomenal marketability pack up and leave Seattle for good, it's what's best for the team. It's what's best for Ichiro, too, who deserves some playoff success for all he's put up with for a decade.
Both sides should be saying to each other, "Baby, it's not you. It's me."
If Ichiro can improve his plate discipline and post respectable numbers by the trading deadline this season, it's a prime opportunity for the Mariners to capitalize on his name and value and deal Ichiro to a contender.
And if his numbers don't recover, it's time to close the book on his career and move on after the season is over and his contract is finished.
The question is if the ownership will let Ichiro go—and if the front office recognizes that to climb the fence to greener pastures, sometimes you have to let go of what's weighing you down.