Did the Mariners win because of some (Ichiro) subtraction?

By Danny Knobler | Baseball Insider
The Mariners have found some life since shipping off Ichiro. Coincidence? (Getty Images)

NEW YORK -- Seven-game winning streaks with the Mariners are rarely simple.

The last time they had one, the manager quit. That was five years ago, and the manager was Mike Hargrove.

Now, the Mariners showed up at Yankee Stadium Friday with seven straight wins, and some people want to credit the wins to another guy who left town.

Is this all because of Ichiro?

I mean, it's obvious that the Mariners took off winning shortly after they traded their long-time (too long, maybe?) right fielder. But does that mean they took off winning because they traded one of the best players they ever had?

We always seem to ask these questions with the Mariners, who went from below .500 to the American League Championship Series the year after Ken Griffey Jr. left, and had their best year ever -- 116 wins -- the very year after Alex Rodriguez skipped town.

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So are they winning now because Ichiro Suzuki is gone?

"Like what, Ichiro's gone and now we're unbeatable? No," catcher John Jaso said Friday, before the Mariners' streak ended with a 6-3 loss to the Yankees.

There are those in the Mariner clubhouse who do think there's a link, although I couldn't find any willing to say so publicly. And to be fair, there are also plenty who insist there's no impact, whether they're speaking publicly or privately.

"I think we were a bunch of young kids who were starting to figure it out," general manager Jack Zduriencik said. "I thought the kids after the [All-Star] break would play pretty good."

Mariners players will remind you that they won five of the last seven games before Ichiro was traded to the Yankees on July 23. And I'll remind you that their seven straight wins came against two teams -- the Royals and Blue Jays -- with basically Triple-A pitching staffs.

Also worth noting: In 11 games since Ichiro left for the Yankees, Mariners right fielders are 4 for 38 (.105).

Is it possible that Ichiro's departure relaxed the other players? Perhaps, but Mariner players say Ichiro was never hated in his own clubhouse, the way Hanley Ramirez was in Miami. Ichiro, they say, had his routine and often kept to himself, but he wasn't really a distraction.

His presence probably did make things tougher on manager Eric Wedge, because as long as Ichiro was in Seattle, there was no question that he had to hit somewhere in the top three spots in the lineup. That was always going to be true, even though Ichiro has the lowest OPS (.641) of any full-time American League outfielder.

With the Yankees, of course, Ichiro happily accepted batting eighth.

The other question is whether Ichiro's departure allows the younger players in the Mariner clubhouse to step up, the way Bobby Abreu's departure in 2006 allowed the Phillies to become Chase Utley's team, and Ryan Howard's team.

Too early to tell, Mariners players and executives say.

It's also too early to know if players like Dustin Ackley and Kyle Seager and Jesus Montero have any chance to make the impact Utley and Howard eventually made.

Ackley has hit just .198 in the month since he took over the leadoff spot from Ichiro. At one point, the Mariners considered sending Ackley back to the minor leagues. They did send Justin Smoak, back, after he hit .189 in 90 games.

Zduriencik, for his part, insists that the Ichiro trade was driven by Ichiro's desire to play for a contender.

"We had to honor that, respect that," he said.

Still, it's clear that Mariners management loved the idea of moving past the Ichiro era, and that Wedge loved the idea of being able to write young players' names into the top three spots in his lineup.

What isn't clear is whether there's any greater meaning in the recent hot streak, whether it's either a result of Ichiro leaving or even simply a sign that Zduriencik's rebuilding plan is beginning to work.

Even with the seven straight wins, the Mariners entered play Friday 30th in the major leagues in on-base percentage and 29th in slugging percentage. And even if some of that is Safeco Field-related, it still suggests how much work there still is to be done.

The Mariners insist they're getting better. One of the biggest reasons that Zduriencik has resisted all the calls to trade Felix Hernandez is that he thinks this group can win soon enough that Felix will play a part in it.

"We're heading in the right direction," Wedge said Friday. "I don't know how far we are in the process, but we're headed in the right direction."

And whether the Ichiro trade had any relation at all with the winning streak that followed, it still was a step in that right direction.

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