The Mariners announced a transaction Sunday that was baffling at first glance and, upon further contemplation, a bit troubling.
To create room for starting pitcher Erasmo Ramirez, outfielder Guillermo Heredia — who has contributed to the team with both his glove and his bat — was sent to Tacoma. The demotion of Heredia solidified Ichiro Suzuki’s spot on a roster that needed him for a few weeks, and now doesn’t.
Manager Scott Servais explained the right-handed hitting Heredia was sent to the minors because of pitching matchups that will find the Mariners likely facing right-handed starters through the duration of their road trip.
“Heredia will be back with us,” Servais said Sunday morning. “He’s a good player. We love the way he plays and how he goes about it. But managing all the pieces, that’s the decision we made.”
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Servais managed some pieces against the Rangers on Saturday night, when he called on Heredia to begin the seventh inning as a pinch hitter for left fielder Ben Gamel. Texas was ahead, 6-4, in a game the Mariners never had led. They needed a spark and Heredia provided it by beating out an infield single.
Moments later, he scored the first run of the five-run rally that powered the Mariners’ 9-7 victory. Heredia chased down a bases-loaded fly ball on the warning track in left for the final out.
It wasn’t a spectacular play, merely one underscoring Heredia’s value as a defensive replacement. He’s been just as competent at the plate, hitting .310 with two homers and a double.
The demotion of Heredia is temporary, but it was a demotion nonetheless and difficult to justify. He helped the Mariners win a game Saturday night, and Sunday morning he was designated as the odd man out of a roster overcrowded by Gamel’s activation from the disabled list.
When first baseman Ryon Healy makes his own return from the DL, general manager Jerry Dipoto will be posed with still another decision regarding the immediate futures of the team’s backups. Will Daniel Vogelbach be optioned to the Rainiers? Where does Heredia fit in the picture?
And then there’s Ichiro, whose two broken-bat singles and two walks in the series finale against the Rangers improved a batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage slash line — .250/.289/.250 — screaming that his phenomenal career has reached the finish line.
Ichiro has yet to connect for an extra-base hit, or steal a base. He’s stolen 509 bases in the majors — we’re talking about somebody who led the league with 56 steals during his historic 2001 breakthrough from Japan — but the next time he attempts a swipe this season, it will be the first time.
If the extra outfielder on the Mariners roster is a light-hitting, not-especially-daring 44-year old named, say, Joe Doe, there’s little consternation about the roster maneuver corresponding with Ramirez’ call-up. Joe Doe goes, Guillermo Heredia stays.
But Ichiro is not an average Joe. He’s an all-time great awaiting Hall-of-Fame induction in his first year of eligibility. Ichiro’s bronze plaque will note that he was a 10-time All-Star with the Seattle Mariners.
How does the Mariners general manager inform this person that retirement might be a good idea? Are there any words graceful enough to couch what’s obvious?
Much easier for Dipoto was to exercise a minor-league option with Heredia, who at 27 is not on an inevitable track to the Hall of Fame.
Dipoto is in a four-corners stall mode, and it’s reasonable to wonder about the possibility of ownership meddling with the kind of baseball-personnel decisions ownership would be wise to leave to the general manager.
Obtaining Ichiro as an extra outfielder to compensate for Gamel’s absence made sense, but there were risks in bringing back a once-special player who hasn’t been special since 2010.
The biggest risk pertained to the temptation of touting Ichiro as relevant in a substantially reduced role. The Mariners couldn’t resist. A minute or so after he signed his modest free-agent contract for 2018, the Safeco Field side of First Avenue was adorned with a larger-than-life poster of Ichiro flanking the likes of Robinson Cano and Nelson Cruz.
Fans posed for photos in front of the Ichiro poster on opening night, and last time I walked down First Avenue, this past Thursday, fans still were posing for photos in front of the Ichiro poster.
The time has come to move on, and Sunday, the Mariners moved on. They sent a legitimate big-league player to the minors, in order to preserve a roster spot for a legend.
What’s that about?
It’s about fans posing for photos before a larger-than-life Ichiro poster, the icon on the wall kindling fond and fun memories of somebody whose baseball life expired years ago.