Ichiro can lead by taking backseat

Have you heard of Mike Wilson?

You haven’t? OK, then. Please allow me to explain.

Wilson was a second-round pick of the Seattle Mariners in 2001. He turned down a football scholarship at the University of Oklahoma to start a career in pro ball. He was big and strong and could hit for power, but it took him a decade to reach the big leagues as a reserve outfielder. He finally debuted with the Mariners last month. It was a nice story. It didn’t last.

Wilson batted .148 in eight games. On Tuesday, the Mariners sent him back to the minors. They needed the roster spot for outfielder Mike Carp, who is tearing up the Pacific Coast League as if he’s the second coming of Mark Trumbo … or at least Bucky Jacobsen.

Tuesday was lousy for the Mariners in general. Cy Young Award winner Felix Hernandez lost a 5-1 decision against the White Sox, and manager Eric Wedge was so unimpressed with his team’s at-bats that he criticized his players publicly.

“This should be a gut check for them tonight – this is not the way we play, not the way we’re going to play,” Wedge said. “They’ve got to recognize it. It’s not good enough if I recognize it. … We’ve got enough veterans in there that should recognize that.

“We’ve got some veteran offensive players that need to be doing better. People we’re counting on need to be doing better. It’s as simple as that.”

You may have noticed something about Wedge’s remarks: He said nothing about Wilson, the guy who was dispatched to Class AAA Tacoma.

That wasn’t an accident. The message was intended for others.

Wedge didn’t name names. He didn’t need to. The facts are there for all to see: The Mariners, surprisingly afloat in the American League West, are paying Ichiro Suzuki and Chone Figgins a combined $27.5 million this year, and neither is doing much to earn it.

Now they must respond, on and off the field – Suzuki, specifically.

Ichiro, 37, is the everyday right fielder, and the Mariners have the worst OPS in right field of any team in the American League.

Figgins, 33, is the everyday third baseman, and the Mariners have the worst OPS at third base of any team in the American League.

To put it another way: The Mariners’ two highest-paid position players are among the least productive regulars in the AL. And Ichiro, coming off 10 consecutive Gold Gloves, has the worst Ultimate Zone Rating of any right fielder who has played at least 400 innings at the position this year, according to FanGraphs.com.

Yep. The fancy numbers say Lance Berkman is about as adept with the glove these days. Sad but true.

Set aside, for a moment, Ichiro’s status as an icon, a 10-time All-Star, a future Hall of Famer (to me), and the first Japanese position player to become a superstar in the U.S. major leagues. For the purposes of this team, this year, Ichiro and Figgins are linked. They were supposed to be the No. 1 and No. 2 hitters, the igniters for an offense that was historically inept last season. That hasn’t happened. The Mariners have one of the league’s worst lineups. Again.

So, the time has arrived for Ichiro to become something he hasn’t been often enough, despite his status as the face of the franchise.

A leader.

He can start by walking into Wedge’s office and suggesting that he bat third, not first, in tonight’s lineup. For a player famously preoccupied with reaching the 200-hit mark every year – a pursuit easiest to undertake from the leadoff spot – it would be an incredibly selfless gesture, welcomed by teammates.

Most importantly, it could be the key to rescuing Figgins’ season – and his own – from career-worst depths.

Do I think that will happen? No. I wish I could tell you for sure, but, on the same day Wedge demanded more from his veteran players, Ichiro declined interview requests before and after the game through a team employee. So much for accountability to the public.

Now, to be clear, Ichiro isn’t to blame for the fact that Figgins has been a bust in Seattle. That falls on Figgins and team management – the parties who agreed to a four-year, $36 million deal despite knowing that Ichiro’s presence atop the lineup would prevent Figgins from continuing in the role in which he thrived as an Angel.

But a little more awareness on Ichiro’s part would go a long way here. He should see that Figgins has struggled to sustain success outside of the leadoff spot. He should see that current No. 3 hitter Justin Smoak, in his first full season as a big leaguer, isn’t ready for that responsibility quite yet. He should see that he’s on pace to finish with 175 hits this year and come to grips with the reality that his streak of 200-hit seasons won’t go on forever.

As out of sync as he appears right now – and he took an unsightly 0-for-4 on Tuesday – Ichiro can still hit for power. I watched him launch a number of towering home runs over the right-field wall during batting practice.

For years, baseball observers wondered how many home runs he could hit if he tried to pull the ball more often, rather than paddle infield singles to the left side. Estimates typically ranged from 20 to 25, with the caveat being that the longer swings would cost points on his batting average. The theory held that Ichiro, who entered the season with a .331 career mark, would end up hitting around .280 as a result.

Now, that would be an improvement. He’s hitting .260. At this point, what does he have to lose? (A quick aside: For all the scrutiny on Derek Jeter right now, Jeter is younger than Ichiro and has a slightly higher batting average. Where are the declarations that Ichiro is finished?)

I realize Figgins isn’t helping his cause by hitting .185. But you must understand this about him: With the Angels, Figgins saw himself as a leadoff man, period. That was his identity. To him, the position he played – and he moved around a lot – was secondary. Unfortunately for the Mariners, he’s apparently spent an inordinate amount of time over the past two seasons figuring out who The New Figgins should be. He is, in the baseball context, a man still searching for his new identity. That may sound like a lot of hogwash to you. But it matters in baseball, perhaps the most mental of team sports.

So, it’s time for the Mariners to give Figgins a shot to reclaim what he once had. Frankly, the team owes itself that chance, too. In Ichiro and Figgins, the organization is spending huge dollars on two former All-Stars who are making negligible contributions. When you invest this kind of money, you do what you can to get some sort of return. The status quo isn’t working, so this is one final, hook-and-ladder play before eating the money necessary to trade Figgins.

The irony, of course, is that Figgins has a longer contract than Ichiro. Figgins is signed through 2013. Ichiro’s deal expires at the end of next season, and his agent, Tony Attanasio, told me on Tuesday, “Nothing has been done on Ichiro’s contract beyond 2012.”

But make no mistake: Ichiro’s ties to ownership are so strong that the impetus for any move in the lineup – at least in the near term – would likely need to come from him. Wedge, remember, is in the third month of his first season with the team. He must pick his spots with the team’s superstar. Wedge is a smart man who surely knows that a frosty relationship with Ichiro can be a manager’s downfall (see Hargrove, Mike).

So, this is Ichiro’s move. The Mariners, after all, have paid him about $100 million over the past decade. And it won’t cost him a dime to send his ego on vacation for a couple weeks.