Admitting a star player’s decline is perhaps the most difficult public relations situation that a franchise can encounter. That’s especially true when the player is the face of the franchise, the one drawing fans to the ballpark and attracting attention to the team from outside its market.
The Mariners are facing that dilemma heading into the 2012 season, with Ichiro Suzuki coming off by far his worst campaign in the United States. Ichiro logged a .272/.310/.335 triple slash last year, failing to reach the 200-hit mark for the first time since coming over from Japan. Now 38, Ichiro is losing the speed and acceleration out of the box that are vital to his slash-and-dash approach. With that decline, his overall value plummeted from 3.2 WARP in 2010 to -0.7 WARP in 2011.
Manager Eric Wedge conceded on Thursday that he thought about moving Ichiro out of the leadoff spot in his lineup last season, but ultimately decided to leave him there, with the costs outweighing the potential benefits. One problem, to be sure, was that Seattle’s roster lacked a desirable alternative at the top of the batting order. Dustin Ackley was the only obvious choice, and moving him out of the three-hole would have made an already dismal heart of the lineup even worse.
But Ichiro’s status as the face of the Mariners also likely complicated Wedge’s choice. The team was not in contention, so there was little reason to upset fans that have come to appreciate Ichiro as one of the M’s few bright spots, along with Felix Hernandez. With Jesus Montero now in tow, Wedge will again have the option to—in his words—“work off Ichiro a little bit,” and it will be interesting to see if Ackley or another Mariner finds his name atop the lineup card in 2012.
A similar situation unfolded in a much different environment last season, when Derek Jeter—despite his epic five-hit performance that included No. 3000 on July 9—proved unworthy of hitting first or second in Joe Girardi’s order. Girardi stuck with Jeter, and was rewarded with a .327/.383/.428 second half, but that surge was buoyed partly by BABIPs of .427 and .385 in August and September, respectively.
Jeter can no longer handle right-handed pitching at the level necessary to catalyze a contending team’s offense. While still outstanding against southpaws, Jeter posted a 666 OPS versus righties in 2011, on the heels of a 633 effort in 2010. Batting him first or second every day hurts the team, and while it might only mean a win or two fewer over the course of the season, that could be the difference between a division title and a wild-card playoff if the Rays and Red Sox are in contention.
As spring training approaches, Wedge and Girardi have tough decisions to make about their franchises’ fading stars—decisions that will likely hurt them from a PR standpoint whichever way they go. Though Wedge’s position is made easier by the Mariners’ rebuilding process and lower-pressure setting, the “domino effect” he described in the afore-linked interview is something he will have to deal with whenever the move is made.