Saturday evening, the Mariners came to an agreement with DH and outfielder (gulp) Raul Ibanez. The M's will pay Ibanez a base salary of $2.75 million, with another $1.25 million available in incentives. Ibanez will formally take his place on the 40-man roster after the M's make a corresponding move to clear space. If I were Carlos Peguero or Mike Carp, I'd be real nervous.
There is, understandably, some consternation about Ibanez's return to the Northwest. Ibanez will be forty-one next June, he hasn't capably played the field in nearly half a decade, and he's coming off a season in which he hit a paltry .208/.269/.385 away from Yankee Stadium, a park ideally suited for his pull-happy approach. The move is particularly curious because, after the acquisition of Kendrys Morales, the Mariners are absolutely bulging with lefty DH/1B types. That the M's are apparently considering Ibanez as an option in the outfield further raises eyebrows. One of the most critical items on the off-season itinerary was to upgrade the outfield but it's hard to imagine an aging Ibanez outplaying someone like Casper Wells. On the surface, Ibanez offers no upgrade at all.
There are really only two rationales for this signing. One is that the Mariners strongly value the intangible contributions they believe Ibanez can provide. Through this lens, the move makes some sense. The Mariner clubhouse remains one of the youngest in the circuit, and if the organization believes that the presence of a veteran like Ibanez boosts team morale and performance, his modest salary justifies his presence on the roster. I'm not sure how to evaluate intangible contributions (hence 'intangible') but most clubs carry a player like Ibanez, and at the end of the day, the loss of $2.75 million hardly alters the M's off-season plan the rest of the way.
The other possibility is that the Mariners are about to make a move. Assuming Ibanez won't play more than a handful of games in the outfield, the M's have five players competing to play catcher, first base, and DH: Ibanez, Morales, Justin Smoak, John Jaso, and Jesus Montero. Morales's acquisition provided the team with adequate insurance if one of the three holdovers struggled in 2013; this latest move just overcrowds the picture. Considering the lack of depth elsewhere on the roster, it makes some sense for the Mariners to consider moving one of their catcher/first base/DH types to augment the team elsewhere.
Ibanez can't be dealt, but the other four players could all draw interest from other clubs. Montero was one of the top prospects in baseball just a year ago and even as a bat-only player, he might have the most value of the group. When deployed correctly, Jaso is one of the better hitting catchers in baseball. Morales, if healthy, offers teams decent defense and a solid bat. Smoak would be more of a reclamation project than the others, but his strong September demonstrates that he still has the talent to hit at the major league level.
In isolation, the Ibanez acquisition is somewhat strange. The M's were well stocked at DH before Ibanez signed and at forty years old, he's unlikely to offer much more than a replacement level performance even if he does see significant action. Ultimately, that's why I think this is an intermediary move. For a team that needs three catchers and wants twelve pitchers, it simply doesn't make sense to acquire more depth at positions already filled unless the organization is planning to move an incumbent. Time will tell, but I smell a trade brewing.