The thought of Ichiro Suzuki leaving Seattle is sad for thousands of fans, but there's always the possibility. The Mariners are still rebuilding and could be for a couple more years. Ichiro is getting old and he may want a shot at the playoffs before his career ends.
However, Ichiro has said he loves Seattle and has exhibited commendable loyalty through 10 years with the Mariners—and it's even possible that by 2013 the Mariners could have a shot at winning the AL (as discussed here).
What Ichiro has that other teams want: he is the image of consistency at the plate and in the field with an MLB-record 10 consecutive 200+ hit seasons, 10 consecutive gold gloves, three silver sluggers, an AL Rookie of the Year Award, and an AL MVP award. He also holds the record for the most hits in a single seasons with the 262 in 2004.
In addition, he steals bases, perennially leads the MLB in infield hits, and hits inside-the-park home runs in All-Star games. There's nothing not to love about the best lead-off hitter in the game right now.
So, in order to prepare you for the worst, here's a look at five teams, in ascending order of likelihood, who would pay high to slot Ichiro at leadoff:
The Giants have the stuff to make another run at the World Series, but they're again faced with the challenge of their division. Last year they barely edged out the Dodgers for a playoff berth, and struggled all year against the Padres and Dodgers, in particular.
Getting Ichiro would provide a needed burst of energy for the shaky batting order this year. They've had a lot of guys cycling around due to injuries and minor league call-ups, and Ichiro would be a force of consistency around which they build.
Lately, Aaron Rowand has been hitting first for SF, and he's doing pretty well this year with a .286 average, but not a lot of explosiveness. He's never swiped more than 20 bags, and he's only hit over .300 twice in his 10 year career. Speed and ability to get on base are probably the two post important parts of hitting leadoff, and Rowand is lacking.
That's not to say, however, that Rowand wouldn't be useful in other parts of the order. If Ichiro hit first, Rowand could move to second, bumping Tejada elsewhere. It's likely that Rowand could move Ichiro along the basepaths frequently, with sacrifices, extra base hits, and even bunts.
Ichiro would probably enjoy the mix of young and old in San Francisco's batting order, as well as a shot at the World Series. The Giants rotation looks pretty nice again this year and Kung-Fu Panda looks strong too.
Of course, it's equally important to see what the Mariners could get out of the trade. I'm going to focus mainly on prospects for compensation in these trades for Ichiro, because the Mariners are looking for young guys who can fill their weak positions, and teams are unlikely to trade the young guys that have just come up to the majors.
The Mariners are soon going to need replacements at SS, 3B, SP, and possibly OF. The Giants' top pitching prospect right now is Zach Wheeler. He has great K/9 and BB/9 rates at 10.9 and 2.2 in the minors over two partial seasons. He's certainly a lucrative option.
Also in the Giants' farm team is power-hitting third baseman Chris Dominguez. He would fit nicely into the 2013 lineup that seems to be coming together nicely for the M's (again, see here).
If the Mariners get Anthony Rendon in the draft, however, shortstop Ehire Adrianza would be a more viable option.
As for a replacement in RF, the Giants might be willing to give up Cody Ross who would provide a nice power asset for Seattle.
One thing I haven't talked about is what would happen if Ichiro switched leagues. Since four of the five teams I'm discussing are in the National League, it's probably important.
As far as I know, Ichiro doesn't have any special affinity for the American League, and he shouldn't. Studies have shown that hitters who move to the NL from the AL improve in almost all stat categories.
One major difference between leagues is the lack of a DH in NL lineups. Ichiro isn't wholly affected by this, except for that he sometimes takes a "day off," and hits as a designated hitter.
The rest of the differences that account for the slight increase in production from AL to NL hitters are just part of the game. Maybe it's the ballparks, maybe it's the pitchers, but whatever it is, Ichiro will profit from it as much as anyone, if not more.
Ichiro would really contribute to the Cards' batting order. While a lot of their guys are having really hot starts, statistics say most will cool down in a week or two (and hopefully Pujols will heat up). A lot of their guys are also power hitters. Normally, you see power hitters in the third, fourth, fifth, and rarely sixth spots, but the Cardinals have overflow.
Ichiro would nicely balance out the hard-hitting lineup and make the extra base hits that those guys get twice as valuable. Ichiro would definitely enjoy hitting with Theriot, Pujols, Holliday and Berkman; it would be a polar opposite of the order in which he's currently hitting.
The Cardinals definitely have a shot at the playoffs this year, only hindered slightly by Wainwright's surgery, making the option fruitful for the Sultan of Slap.
The other side of the trade might include Shelby Miller, the fifth ranked pitching prospect, and 3B Zach Cox. Also, there's a slight possibility the Cards might send back one of their top power hitters. Lance Berkman will be a free agent after this year, and St. Louis might want to get something for him instead of letting him fall to free agency.
You might say there's no need to make any changes to the Indians team that has now won seven in a row, but their luck (no way they're going to playing like this all year) is going to run out soon. Hitting Grady Sizemore at leadoff isn't the best option for Cleveland; they can get more out of him.
He usually hits between .260 and .290 and gets lots of stolen bases, but he can also blast home runs making him the ideal two hitter. If Ichiro and Sizemore hit one, two, (a pretty scary way to start games for opposing pitchers) the Indians could count on getting one of them on base 50 percent of the time. No doubt, Ichiro would enjoy hitting in front of Sizemore.
That's a pretty reassuring statistic for the young pitching staff in Cleveland, and would definitely guarantee more wins for the Indians, who are already exceeding all expectations set at the beginning of the year.
In return, I bet the Mariners would try to get Shin-soo Choo back. He began his career with the Mariners, and is one of the most hyped young guys in the league this year. He'd be an ideal replacement in right field.
Along with Choo, the Mariners could get Lonnie Chisenhall (3B), the Indians' No. 1 prospect, and Alex White, their top pitching prospect.
The Marlins have the third lowest payroll in the Majors this year. Why? No one goes to the games. This has always been a problem for the Marlins, and Ichiro could solve it. Where Ichiro goes, fans go, as well as lots of Japanese advertising. Florida could use the money and publicity.
Besides economic motives, the fish would want Ichiro for the same reasons as everyone else. They currently have Chris Coghlan leading off. Lacking any huge statistical advantages, he really belongs in the lower half of the order.
It is unlikely that the Marlins would give their RF, Mike Stanton in return. He is their biggest hype right now, and he has tons of potential. He has not cemented a spot in right field though, and there's certainly room elsewhere in the outfield at Sun Life Stadium.
Ichiro would definitely get a shot at the playoffs in Florida. Josh Johnson has already established himself as a Cy Young potential, and Hanley should heat up sometime soon.
In exchange for such a valuable player, the Marlins could offer another power-hitting third base-playing Dominguez (Matt, this time), SP Chad James, and Christian Yelich as an OF replacement, again suiting the Mariners' needs.
The Reds have been a good team for the past few years. They've been improving steadily since 2007, last year winning the biggest division in the league. However, they didn't have the stellar team that would have been necessary to advance far into the playoffs.
In my opinion, their biggest problem was the lack of a solid leadoff hitter. They had some success with Brandon Phillips last year, but we also saw a lot of Drew Stubbs and Orlando Cabrera. This year, Stubbs has taken over the role completely, with Phillips at fourth, right behind MVP possible Joey Votto.
Stubbs certainly has talent at the plate, but like with Sizemore on the Indians, the leadoff spot isn't for him. His average is usually around .260 and he's more of a power hitter than a contact hitter. If he moved to second, behind Ichiro, the Reds' order would become a lot more threatening.
This is another league-changing trade, and Ichiro would definitely enjoy the benefits of hitting before Stubbs, Votto and Phillips. With the Cardinals off to a hot start, the Reds already have some catching up to do. The Brewers also have a chance at the division title, so the Reds would do well to add another solid hitter.
The Mariners could obtain some great utility prospects in return, with the likes of Billy Hamilton (2B/SS) and Yonder Alonso (1B/OF) as well as catcher Devin Mesoraco if Adam Moore continues to have injury struggles.
Again, this was a hypothetical piece. The management in Seattle has expressed no interest in trading Ichiro. He brings hordes of fans as well as lots of advertising, which in turn bring money. His contract extends one more year, and I'm sure the guys up top will be negotiating madly to get him back for the rest of his career.
As for Ichiro's decision, he'll probably stay in Seattle. He's been with the Mariners for going on 11 years, and they definitely all haven't been good (for the team), but he hasn't expressed any desire to leave. There seems to be a happy relationship between him and the owners, which is good.
If, on the off-chance something does happen that sparks a trade, I've given my input on where I think he'll go. His most valuable quality is leading off and each team I've analyzed needs a leadoff hitter. They are also all contenders, which could be appealing to a playoff-deprived Ichiro.
Come July, I'll be as nervous as the rest of Ichiro's adoring fans, but I sincerely hope he stays to finish his career with the Mariners, right where he began.