Tuesday, November 14, 2006

The Future Meaning of Ichiro

The Matsuzaka sweepstakes is over. Boston has made their $51.1 million uber-bid and is set to negotiate an astronomical deal with the Japanese ace. The repercussions of this situation will be felt in many places. It will be felt in cities all over the US, where free agent pitching prices will hit an all time high. Many of the mid and lower market teams will be priced out even further than they were before. This is the new economics of baseball. It will be felt in New York, where both the Mets and the Yankees coveted Matsuzaka, and will have to watch him don the colors of the Red Sox Nation. That particularly stings for the Yankees, who will face him a number of times throughout the season, and deal with a cut in their Japanese market share. It will be felt by Seibu, both positively and negatively, as they have reaped a financial whirlwind but given up their best player at the same time. It will be felt in other Japanese cities, where big money is waiting for struggling clubs who wish to sell off their stars to eager Major League owners.

Nowhere will the impact of this wave of big money postings be felt than in Seattle. Seattle, you ask? How will this affect Seattle more than anyone else? Trust me. Let me spell it out for you.

The Mariners went from being a club full of superstar players, including Randy Johnson, Ken Griffey, Jr., Alex Rodriguez, and Edgar Martinez, to a struggling Pacific Northwest franchise reliant on their Japanese owner to farm the Far East for underexposed talent. They made the first volley by bringing Kaz Sasaki to the US, and continued with Ichiro, and more recently Kenji Johjima. It is a formula that worked to keep the Mariners competitive and actually even saw them post the best single season record in the history of the sport, with 116 wins in 2001. All of that may be over at the end of the 2007 campaign. It may be over because Ichiro Suzuki is a free agent.

Mariners owner, Mr. Yamauchi, has been pooling his financial resources to keep the wildly popular Ichiro in Sea-town. The Mariners are extremely popular in Japan, thanks to the success of Ichiro and his fellow Mariners from the Far East. He is omni-present on television, billboards, textbooks, and magazine covers. Ichiro is a national hero. The problem is, Ichiro wants to win. Seattle has become the victim of an overpriced marketplace, where pitchers are going for $16, 17, 18, and 25 million a pop. If it’s an ace, it costs as much as the GDP of a small country. The Mariners have mid-market financial resources and little hope of finding a real #1 starter in their farm system. Ichiro isn’t getting any younger. Perhaps you see where this is going….

How likely is it that the stellar right and center fielder will be back for another tour of duty, while the Rangers, Angels, and Athletics are all getting stronger? How likely is it that there will be other suitors out there willing to spend big on Ichiro to break into the Japanese market and follow the lead of the Red Sox in making a big spending splash? I think it’s more than a little likely. Who are those big spenders? Who needs an All-Star caliber centerfielder with ties to the second largest economy in the world? I have a few ideas.

The Red Sox now have their chip. They are in. The problem is, they are in once a week when Matsuzaka pitches. The Yankees and Mariners are going to get their share of NHK broadcasts by right of having famous everyday players on their rosters. Likewise, the White Sox have Iguchi and will probably get some airtime as well. Adding Akinori Iwamura to the mix in 2007 will help some as yet unknown franchise get their foot in the door. Unless that team is also the Red Sox, they will need to bolster their investment with a good player with star quality for everyday exposure. That player may be Iwamura, if the Sox have a comprehensive “Japan Plan” for this offseason. It also may be Michihiro Ogasawara of the Nippon Ham Fighters, who won the Pacific League MVP and is currently an under the radar free agent. Matsuzaka knows how good he is…..

Should those plans fall through, what’s to stop the Red Sox from splashing on Ichiro. It would do two things. One, it would add an All-Star outfielder with a great bat, legs, and throwing arm. Two, it would permanently steal the Japanese spotlight from the Yankees, who are wildly famous and popular, and reposition it on the Red Sox. The Yankees would be famous, but the Red Sox would be Japan’s team. Theo Epstein knows this and I guarantee they are working on a plan to acquire Ichiro already. With Ichiro and Matsuzaka, the Sox would not only be good, they’d be the most famous franchise in Japan. What kind of dollar figures can you put on that?

The flip side to that situation is that the Yankees know this too. The Yankees could use a centerfielder who hits, runs, and plays defense. Johnny Damon is good, and Melky Cabrera is up and coming, but let’s face it….Damon’s defense is in decline, and Melky is probably better suited to left. If the Yankees choose to counter the Matsuzaka move by spending huge on Ichiro, they will solidify their strong hold on Japan, and perhaps do so irreversibly. That’s goes double if the Yankees are able to land the Yomiuri Giants’ Koji Uehara in the same 2007 offseason. What is that worth to the Yankees?

In either case, the Red Sox and Yankees rivalry is now global. The frontlines are drawn and they extend all the way around the world. For fans who are already sick of the two teams, it’s more nausea. For Yankees and Red Sox fans, it’s more fuel to the belief that the world revolves around the ebb and flow of Boston against New York. For Mariners fans, it’s something to mourn. Unless Ichiro is so intensely loyal to Mr. Yamauchi, or intent on returning to Japan to end his career, the money that will be out there for him in a year’s time will make A-Rod’s deal look like pocket change.