The Seattle Mariners brought an old friend back into the fold for 2013 a few weeks ago, signing outfielder/designated hitter Raul Ibanez to a 1-year deal for the upcoming season. The signing of Ibanez, a veteran of 17 years in the major leagues who will turn 41 this June, confused some fans of the team not only because of his age, but also because it appears that the positions that he plays are already a little bit crowded. While it's true that Ibanez's 39 home runs and 93 extra base hits over the past two years is far ahead of what any other current Mariners have tallied in that time, some have voiced their concern that his lack of defensive prowess -- a limitation that existed for him even when Raul was with Seattle five years ago -- may limit not only his opportunities to create positive impact on the field, but other players' opportunities, too.
That point can be debated, but there is no mistaking that Ibanez is definitely nearing the end of his big league career in coming to a very young team here in Seattle. So why did Jack Zduriencik and Eric Wedge make the decision to bring Ibanez in to a crowded outfield/designated hitter/first base picture? Because Raul Ibanez is a leader. I talked with one member of the Mariners Front Office who offered up his extended take on what Ibanez offers:
"I get what people say on the outside, that the whole clubhouse police officer/veteran leadership thing is a joke. What I have found is that it is a key and integral part of a team that needs to learn how to win and overcome adversity. Great teams just win, and they can fight all they want, just think Yankees good teams on this one. But, they still had [Derek] Jeter, who brings everything to the table that you can possibly imagine."
"With the Mariners recently, when we have a tough game, losing 3-2 with 3 hits, the guys take it hard. They sit around the clubhouse talking about missed opportunities, talk about hitting strategy, talk about the game that they just played. Think about the normal person having a bad day at the office and talking about it when they get home. These guys take all games seriously, not just brushing them off. Without a veteran in that clubhouse guiding them in the right direction, it becomes a bad cycle. Who do you want Kyle Seager and Dustin Ackley commiserating with? [In 2011] when the guys took some steps forward, it was always Adam Kennedy talking with those guys. Adam is great, but he's no Raul Ibañez. The clubhouse chemistry aspect can be debated until the cows come home, but it is a real thing."
Clubhouse chemistry is definitely something that has been said to be lacking for the Mariners at the big league level the past several seasons. And think back to the Mariners most successful seasons in the past 10 to 15 years -- those clubs all had great clubhouses. And Ibanez has long been lauded for his strengths in that area. When he signed with the Yankees prior to 2011, their hitting coach Kevin Long praised Raul's abilities at the plate and his abilities as a leader. "He's a perfect fit for us," Long told MLB.com. "His professionalism...It's a nice addition. What he brings to the table, he's just a terrific human being who brings a professionalism about him that you don't find out there every day. I'm glad we got him; glad we picked him up. He's going to be a big help."
Yes, winning helps that...a lot. But the flip side of that argument is that having a good clubhouse, a good leader and mentor in the dugout during games, after games, on the road, on the plane trips -- all of that can help winning on the field, too. And for his part, Ibanez seems to be on board with his new role. He told MLB.com's Greg Johns, "It's an opportunity to have an impact on a team as a player and as a veteran player, being able to help out the young guys." Thinking back to those that impacted him, Ibanez continued to Johns, "I have great memories when I first came up playing with guys like Ken Griffey Jr., Edgar Martinez, Jamie Moyer, John Olerud, so many guys that were just a huge impact on me." The Mariners feel that Ibanez can have that same impact on some of the younger players on their roster now.
Think back to 2009. That season there was a lot of enthusiasm from the players because Ken Griffey, Jr. was back, and the clubhouse -- with a jovial Junior and Mike Sweeney -- was often joked about in the media as a very "huggy" place. The Mariners were often seen laughing and enjoying themselves. We all remember the Griffey-on-the-shoulders parade after the season. Heck, even Carlos Silva and Ichiro got along and in fact had a piggy back ride of their own. The M's won 61 games in 2008, 85 in the clubhouse-friendly 2009 and 61 again in 2010. And there was unquestionably a breakdown in the clubhouse between 2009 and 2010.
That Mariners staffer went a little deeper into the benefits of having a strong veteran leader as great as Ibanez could mean to the young players:
"What does Raul bring to the table? He is a bridge between the young players, the Latin players and just about everything in-between. I know his name is often brought up (with the likes of Mike Sweeney) as one of the good guys in the game. I put Raul in a whole different level. He is the ultimate professional, and I mean that in the highest regards. When Carter Capps needs to figure out how much to tip the bellman in Chicago, who can he go to? When Kyle Seager wants to talk about moving runners over, who does he go to? Raul will be like a player/coach, and everyone still saw what he did in the clutch last year with the Yankees."
"And beyond the clubhouse, Raul can be an ambassador of all sorts for the Mariners. He is a leader in all aspects of the term, like a Jim Thome, and one that our younger corps of players needs around. The pitching had [Kevin] Millwood (of sorts) last year, but you really need a guy that has more than one-out-of-five days on the agenda."
"I welcome him back with open arms, and can't wait to see how our younger players soak up his professionalism, maturity, and overall baseball IQ in the clubhouse."
You can write that all off as fluff if you want, I'm not going to make you believe it, but I think it would be a mistake to dismiss it. The Mariners have often been tabbed as a ship without a captain over the past decade, and not being a true leader was one of the biggest complaints that fans had of Ichiro during his time in Seattle. And although they've brought in "veteran leaders" before in the likes of the aforementioned Sweeeney and Griffey, if Ibanez can be the type of leader who can offer a positive influence in the clubhouse, in the dugout on the road and in life in general for the young Mariners core, enabling them to grow and learn in a more comfortable environment, Seattle could be reaping the benefits for years to come.
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