Dating back to last October with the New York Yankees, Raul Ibanez has enjoyed a bit of a career rejuvenation. He hit three huge home runs in big spots in the playoffs for the Yankees and then returned to the Mariners on a one-year deal that was thought to be mainly a part-time player/full-time mentor type of role for the young roster in Seattle. It has turned into much more than that as Ibanez has started 90 games in the outfield and hit 28 home runs – the highest total on the Mariners, the most he’s hit hit since 2009 and the 2nd highest total by a player in his age 41 season in MLB history, just one behind Ted Williams.
Ibanez enjoyed a monster stretch in May and June, hitting 17 home runs and driving in 40 runs in his 44 games in that stretch, but his production has tailed off dramatically in the second half as his OPS has fallen from .892 to .683 while his strikeout rate has risen to 28.7%. Nevertheless, it appears pretty evident that Ibanez isn’t ready to call it a career. And with the September he is having so far -- .278/.350/.639 and seven extra base hits in 40 plate appearances -- it does look like there is a little still left in his tank.
Greg Johns of MLB.com reports Ibanez as saying, “It’s not something I really dwell upon. It’s not something I mull over and lose sleep over because I’m in the moment right now.” But he continued, “If you ask me right now, I definitely want to play another year,” per 710 ESPN’s Shannon Drayer. He talked with her about the physical challenges and mental obstacles of playing baseball at his age but stated, “I draw a lot of my inspiration from people who are not in baseball.” Raul added to Geoff Baker, “Physically, I feel like I can play for, kind of until I want to." The 18-year veteran continued, "Mentally, it is a mental grind. The mental part becomes harder as you get older and staying locked in for six months in a row gets harder, but physically I think I can play this game for a while. It doesn't mean I will but I think I can."
Ibanez is somewhat of an icon with the Mariners even though his 11 years with the club have been broken up into three stints with the club. He’s clearly producing for the Mariners, not only leading the team with his 28 home runs, but also boasting the best wOBA (.354), SLG (.506), ISO (.254), OPS (.819), OPS+ (131) on the team. He’s currently tied for 8th in the AL in home runs with Adrian Beltre and Jose Bautista and that slugging percentage is tied with the A’s Josh Donaldson as the 18th best mark in all of MLB among players with 400 or more plate appearances. His 12.6 Batting Runs Above Average -- 24th in the AL -- is above teammate Kyle Seager, , Billy Butler, Ben Zobrist and Nelson Cruz, among others.
But his defense, which was never a plus asset to begin with, is just getting less impressive with age. FanGraphs has him as the 7th worst defender in baseball this season and for the second time in three seasons he has a -22.1 UZR/150 in the outfield. The history of baseball doesn’t have any examples of guys age 40-plus making a remarkable turnaround as defenders, so we basically know what Ibanez is on defense; not good.
The total package for Ibanez is a difficult one to put a value on. That shows in the different WAR models, too, as Baseball Prospectus has him at 2.4, Baseball-Reference shows 1.1 and FanGraphs has 0.6 for his 2013 so far. But on top of his on field contributions, the leadership qualities that Ibanez has and the example that he sets for the younger players is worth something, too. One of the quotes from that piece linked above says, “He is the ultimate professional, and I mean that in the highest regards,” about Raul.
The question that the Front Office for the Mariners -- whoever those people may end up being -- need to answer this off-season is this: Is a 42-year-old, ultimate-professional-but-very-limited-in-the-field-Raul Ibanez worth bringing back as one of the players on the 2014 25-man roster for Seattle?
I don’t think that anyone can give an accurate answer to that question at this point considering all of the turnover that figures to take place on the M’s roster in a couple of months. But when considering the question, everyone needs to look further than the GIF-able outfield defense and the home runs.
Ibanez told MLB.com’s Maggie Zahneis, "I feel very fortunate and blessed that I really, I get an opportunity to still do this," Ibanez said. "And there is no greater game, nothing else I would rather do than to play baseball." Her full story, which was about a lot more than Ibanez wanting to continue playing, can be read here.
Seattle could do a lot worse than employing a guy like that, in my opinion. And whether it be as a part-time player or in some other role off the field, I hope that Ibanez remains connected to the organization in 2014 and beyond.
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