Ibanez Comes Full Circle

Raul Ibanez didn't always seem like a player the Mariners' would be thrilled to pay over $4 million annually, but after three solid seasons in Kansas City the M's didn't hesitate when given the opportunity to sign the outfielder. Ibanez will likely be Seattle's starting left fielder in 2004.

Time does crazy things in this world. Not a believer? Just ask Raul Ibanez.

Ibanez has seen the effects of it all too clearly.

Once a player who Mariners' fans grew accustomed to seeing strike out in pinch-hitting duties, times have drastically changed. Since leaving Seattle after the 2000 season - the Mariners' didn't offer to renew his contract - Ibanez has turned himself into one of the American League's premier left-handed hitting outfielders. In doing so, he's completed quite a ride from the outhouse to the penthouse.

Ibanez signed a three-year deal on Wednesday to return to the Mariners, paying him a total of $13.5 million.

A 36th round draft pick by the Mariners in 1992 out of Miami-Dade Community College, few originally expected the left-handed hitter to ever become a major leaguer. Not many 36th rounders, afterall, make it past the Double-A ranks. That goes without saying.

Ibanez was different. He started out as a catcher in the M's minor league system, and wasted no time crushing the ball. His only holdup was his age. Drafted at age 20, Ibanez didn't exactly fly through each level of the minors.

The M's took their time advancing him through the system, closely monitoring his progress after each year. By 1995, at age 23, Ibanez had made it to High-A ball at Riverside. That season he put up triple-crown type of numbers, hitting .332 with 20 homers and 108 RBI. It was an incredible season, made even more impressive by the fact that it came from a late-round draft pick.

Still, critics pointed to his advanced age at a low level of the minors as a reason to be skeptical. A year later, Ibanez was back to again prove his doubters wrong.

In 1996, the outfielder tore through Double-A Port City, playing in only 19 games, before spending 111 games at Triple-A Tacoma. His .284 average with the Rainiers was enough to earn an August callup to the big-leagues.

At age 24, Ibanez was no longer too old to be a true prospect. Not only had he put up the numbers, he'd reached Seattle. The future appeared brighter than ever.

But the next four seasons saw Ibanez's progress come to a hault. He split each year between Tacoma and Seattle, and never really hit a groove. Each season, he insisted that "all he needed to produce were more at-bats."

He never got them in Seattle. In five seasons with the Mariners, Ibanez never had more than 209 ABs in one campaign. Not surprisingly, his highest single-season batting average over that span was a very average .258.

His peak moment during those years came in 1999, when he belted the first grand slam in the history of Safeco Field.

That wasn't enough in the mind of the Mariners' brass to keep Ibanez around after the 2000 season ended. Ibanez, 28 at the time, wasn't resigned and found a home in Kansas City.

Playing in a small market, he kept faith that his best years were still ahead of him. Indeed, they were. Ibanez batted a career-high .280 in 2001 for the Royals with 13 HR and 54 RBI. He was released after the season, but resigned with Kansas City.

The success carried over into each of the next two seasons. Ibanez experienced a breakout 2002 season at age 30, hitting .294 with 24 HR and 103 RBI. There was little dropoff in 2003, as Ibanez again batted .294 and produced in the middle of the Royals' lineup in a big way. He finished with 18 HR and 90 RBI.

At age 31, he again found himself where he was three years earlier - a free agent looking for a new home. This time around, he was no longer a little known commodity. Ibanez had made a name for himself.

Though he enjoyed his years in Kansas City, Ibanez always maintained a fondness for his orginal team. So when his agent contacted him last week and told him that the Mariners had inquired about his services, Ibanez stopped him right there.

There was no need to continue. Ibanez knew where he wanted to play in 2004 and beyond.

On Wednesday, the Mariners jumped at the chance to bring back the guy with the sweet left-handed line-drive stroke. The move will help the team add more pop in the lineup from left field, and will make the team more versatile. Ibanez's ability to play first base will allow John Olerud to get the occasional off day, a benefit the M's haven't enjoyed in a long while.

Over 11 years after first signing with the Seattle Mariners, Raul Ibanez is back. He's happier than ever, and finally will get the at bats he always had hoped for.

Nothing a little time couldn't fix.

Joe Kaiser is the publisher of InsidethePark.com. He's a sucker for the drag bunt, the head first triple and any player that dons the No. 1. He welcomes your feedback at joe-kaiser@excite.com.

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