Raul Ibanez and Hiroyuki Nakajima Moves Show Difference Between M's and A's

Thomas HolmesCorrespondent IIIDecember 23, 2012

PEORIA, AZ - FEBRUARY 23:  Outfielder Raul Ibanez #28 of the Seattle Mariners poses during Photo Day on February 23, 2007 at Peoria Sports Complex in Peoria, Arizona.  (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

It may sound crazy, but the Seattle Mariners are bringing back fan-favorite Raul Ibanez with a one-year major league contract after spending the past four seasons on the East Coast with the Philadelphia Phillies and New York Yankees

The Seattle Times' Geoff Baker reported the move and the team's plan on Saturday as being:

For now, the plan is to bring him to spring training and see how he fares alongside some of the younger players the Mariners have manning those spots. Where Ibanez fits will depend largely on how well or poorly some of the younger players perform and where the team needs help the most.

The Mariners confirmed the deal — reported as a $2.75 million contract with another possible $1.25 million in incentives — but did not make an official announcement right away because they first had to make a corresponding 40-man roster move to free up room for Ibanez.

It's a nostalgic and heartwarming move of sorts, somewhat akin to the signing of Ken Griffey Jr. back in 2009 when the team hoped to get offensive production on the field and a leader off the field in the clubhouse. 

The move is the second veteran signing in as many days, following Jeremy Bonderman's opting to "give it one last shot" on Friday.  

Meanwhile, last week somewhere nestled between the despair of losing Josh Hamilton and the cautious optimism of trading for Kendrys Morales, another name quietly came off the big board of free agents. 

Indeed, it appears that former Seibu Lions shortstop Hiroyuki Nakajima will be going to Oakland next season, according to The Associated Press (h/t ESPN.com):

Nakajima agreed to a $6.5 million, two-year contract. The deal also includes a $5.5 million option for a third season, one of the people said.

Nakajima, a seven-time Pacific League All-Star, has a .302 batting average with 149 home runs, 664 RBIs and 134 stolen bases over 11 seasons with Seibu.

I must confess, this one hurt a bit more than most because I believe he could have helped the Mariners in 2013 but instead ended up signing with a division rival, didn't cost a ton of money and, on a personal level, was one of my favorite players to watch while living in Japan a few years back.   

Understand this isn't meant to serve as a cheap dig at M's general manager Jack Zduriencik, as I doubt Nakajima was ever high on his list of potential acquisitions, if at all.  Instead, the point I'm trying to make is that after seeing Stephen Drew sign a deal with the Red Sox, Oakland didn't miss a beat and rather methodically signed a solid replacement for a fraction of the price. 

As is often the case with Billy Beane, the Oakland Athletics rolled with the punches and have debunked a few myths about team building when compared to fellow division rivals and their ability to spend. 

For you see, if spending money automatically equated to success, then it would be easy to write off the Mariners in comparison to the Texas Rangers and Los Angeles Angels

Yet Oakland's periodic success pokes its fair share of holes in that theory, as perhaps no other team in baseball makes their money work harder.  Perhaps it's not sustainable every year, but it certainly makes the most of a challenging financial situation. 

So today I tip my hat to Billy Beane and his staff with their "Moneyball" approach as they continually reinvent the A's on a shoe-string budget and occasionally outhustle and muscle richer division rivals. 

The brilliance of the Nakajima move is that he will either end up being a steal to help fill the A's need at shortstop or at worst a pricey utility player who can be cut loose in two year's time...low risk, high reward. 

At this point you may be tempted to ask one of two questions:"Why pick on Jack Z following the Morales-Vargas trade?" or "Could 'Moneyball' work in Seattle?"

While it may seem crazy, I will now attempt to answer both at the same time. 

First off, Jack Z's trade for Morales reaffirmed that he can get a deal completed, which a little more than a week ago looked like a tall order; meanwhile, if we look closely at some of the M's more recent offseason moves, such as signing pitchers Hisashi Iwakuma and Oliver Perez, have arguably worked well to the point that both were re-signed this winter. 

Perhaps this year Jason Bay surprises everyone and rebounds after his disastrous stint in New York?

Perhaps the recently signed Jeremy Bonderman rebounds after Tommy John surgery?

Maybe Raul Ibanez has something left in the tank?

Maybe, maybe not, but at least it won't cost the Mariners an arm and a leg to find out. 

So as much as we all like to poke fun at such moves, the good news is that they too fall within the low-risk, high-reward spectrum.

The key moving forward is having the good fortune of finding the right players consistently enough to field a winning team, which is something that even Oakland struggles with from year to year, but that never stops them from being competitive both on and off the field.

Hopefully, Jack Z is getting there, but there is one other key obstacle I believe he needs to overcome.

Billy Beane is a man who continually looks to optimize his roster and rarely considers anyone untouchable which is a stark contrast to Jack Z, who is reluctant to deal prospects, according to Larry Stone of The Seattle Times.

Following his conversation with Jack, Stone concludes the real issue is timing:

In the end, it's less a timing issue than it is a talent evaluation issue. It's OK to trade your prospects, even the good ones, if you get the right player(s) back. And it's OK to keep your prospects, if they blossom into quality players. The Mariners don't have the greatest track record on either front. Zduriencik needs to be right this time around.

I can also imagine Jack's reluctance involves a little bit of pride. 

In some ways, those prized prospects are his babies and perhaps his legacy in Seattle regardless of how things work out. 

Unlike Beane, who is well established and can afford to make a mistake or two at this stage of his tenure, you have to figure that Jack Z is walking on eggshells in wanting to be absolutely certain to avoid making any mistakes with the likes of a Dustin Ackley or Taijuan Walker...players he drafted and in all likelihood deep down believes will validate his time with the Mariners.

Notice the only notable young player he's dealt away thus far was Michael Pineda, someone he inherited. 

Do I believe the Mariners need to ship off all of their prospects to turn things around?

No, but holding on to all of them like cherished collectibles while waiting for them to mature down the road could prove problematic if the big club continues to struggle in the present. 

Once again, I don't envy Jack, but it might be time to let go a little and take a chance. 

The Morales trade was a good first step that should buy him a little more time and space while perhaps serving as the first move in a series yet to come, but let's not go so far as considering it bold. 

Couple that with the Bay, Bonderman and now Ibanez signings and you're left with the feeling that Jack is going to keep using a lot of duck tape and crazy glue to hold together/cover holes on his roster. 

It might work, but eventually you get the feeling that the M's will have to invest in something a little more substantial that's built to last or at least for more than a year or two. 

When the time comes, I hope Jack has the courage to not let the big spenders get him down, but instead steal a page from his rival's playbook and optimize his roster with moves that will strengthen the Mariners' foundation for hopefully years to come. 


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