SEATTLE — Raul Ibanez has been told the Mariners will look at him in both outfield corners, at designated hitter and even at first base next season.
The 40-year-old agreed to a one-year, $2.75 million contract Saturday that has him returning to Seattle for a third go-round. Ibanez is remodeling a home he still owns in Sammamish and had planned to move his family back to the Seattle area full-time in 2013 regardless of where he wound up playing.
But when the Mariners agreed to give him a shot at substantial plate appearances next season, Ibanez jumped at the chance to return and help a young team take its next steps.
“I think the best way to lead is by example,” Ibanez said. “And the best way to lead by example is by actually having the opportunity to get out there and produce.”
That opportunity was not around a year ago when the Mariners first spoke to Ibanez about returning to the city where he began his career. Ibanez wound up signing with the New York Yankees, hitting .240 with 19 home runs and an on-base-plus-slugging percentage of .761.
Ibanez was given 384 at-bats in a part-time role with the Yankees. It was the first time since 2004 he’d had fewer than 500 at-bats, but his 425 plate appearances still enabled him to contribute — including huge home runs in the postseason.
He expects much the same this season with the Mariners. His contract contains $1.25 million in incentives tied to what Ibanez says are “standard” targets on the higher end of the plate-appearances scale.
In other words, if his role morphs into more of a full-time job, he’ll earn the full amount. If not, he can be used as the left-handed-hitting side of various combinations in either outfield corner, at DH or even first base.
“I’ve found that when you’re in a part-time role, if it’s the left-handed part, it works out pretty well because you’re seeing right-handed pitching three-quarters of the time,” he said.
The Mariners said Sunday they won’t officially announce the signing — or the corresponding 40-man roster move — until Dec. 26 because MLB offices are closed for Christmas. The delay in the announcement has led to speculation that a trade might be in the works, given that the Mariners have a plethora of bats that could see time in the outfield corners, at DH and at first base next season.
Any chance the Mariners had at landing free-agent outfielder Nick Swisher ended Sunday when it was reported that he reached a four-year, $56-million deal with the Cleveland Indians. But the Mariners could still spend some of their extra budget room on free-agent center fielder Michael Bourn or trade young players for additional offensive and pitching help.
The Baltimore Orioles were rumored to be interested in Justin Smoak, whose playing time could fall off in Seattle after the acquisitions of Ibanez and first baseman Kendrys Morales. With Morales expected to see time at first base and DH, Smoak would be limited even further if Ibanez gets playing time at either position.
Ibanez said the Mariners spoke to him about first base, a position where he has played 136 games in the majors over his 17 seasons.
“They mentioned to me that if I can play first base, they might need it,” he said. “I can play first base, I’ve done it before, so we’ll see what winds up happening.”
GM Jack Zduriencik cautioned reporters last week that there are still seven weeks to go until spring training and that much can happen with the roster by then and before the season opener.
Ibanez said most of the talk has centered on him playing left field, then moving over to right if needed.
If newly signed Jason Bay shows up this spring and performs well, he and Ibanez could form a strict left-right platoon in left field and allow Michael Saunders to move to right field on a more regular basis.
Or, if Bourn was acquired to play center, Franklin Gutierrez could move to right field in a left-right platoon while Bay would stay in left. Saunders and Ibanez could then be rotated to either field as the left-handed hitting platoon component with Bay and Gutierrez.
For now, it all depends on whether the Mariners make additional moves.
“I’m going to be around a lot of young guys — great guys, from what I’ve been told,” Ibanez said. “It’s a great opportunity to be around young, enthusiastic kids with an upside.”
Ibanez saw his Yankees nearly overtaken by an upstart Baltimore Orioles squad last year in the AL East and again in the playoffs. Between that and the success of the Oakland Athletics in the AL West, he added, no one should write the Mariners off just yet.
“A lot of major-league teams are very similar in terms of talent,” he said. “And in the end, what can separate them often comes down to your drive, your desire and your belief in your abilities. That’s one thing I think we learned last year from seeing how they played.”