Raul Ibanez of the Seattle Mariners is closing in on 300 career homers, rolling right along at age 41. It has been a remarkable career for a player who didn't get a regular job until he was 30 years old. Let's examine Ibanez and his career with today's Prospect Retrospective.
Raul Ibanez was drafted in the 36th round by the Seattle Mariners in 1992, out of Miami-Dade CC in Florida. He hit .308 in 33 games in his pro debut for the Arizona League Mariners, although at age 20 in the AZL this wasn't super-impressive, particularly for a guy who was mainly a first baseman at this stage.
1993 he split between Bellingham in the Northwest League (hitting .284/.385/.351 in 43 games) and Appleton in the Midwest League (hitting .274/.375/.427 in 52 games). These were OK numbers but not great, and he was primarily regarded as a fringe prospect/ solid organization player at this point, though with some offensive upside. Grade C would be appropriate; he had yet to settle in at a position full-time.
Ibanez played in 91 games for Appleton in 1994, hitting .312/.375/.486 with 30 doubles. The Mariners converted him to catcher full-time, and his bat improved from "has some upside" to "impressive production." He needed experience and polish with the glove, but I think he'd have rated a Grade C+ prospect based on the improvement with his bat.
A wrist injury limited him to 95 games for Riverside in the California League in 1995, but he had a great year, hitting .332/.395/.612, posting a +36 percent OPS. He hit 20 homers and drove in 108 runs, with just 49 strikeouts in 361 at-bats. His defense behind the plate was weak, and at age 23 he wasn't young for the Cal League, but his hitting was hard to ignore. Note the combination of power with a very low strikeout rate, which is always a good marker.
I gave him a Grade B+ in the 1996 Minor League Scouting Notebook. Nowadays I'd probably have rated him a straight Grade B, due to his age.
Ibanez played just 19 games in Double-A in 1996 (hitting .368) then was jumped to Triple-A. He hit .284/.353/.430 for Tacoma. This was very credible given the fact that he basically skipped Double-A. But his value was reduced in general terms when the Mariners gave up him as a catcher, shifting him back to the outfield. His MLEs showed him as a .270 hitter at the major league level, with moderate power. Scouting reports ranged from solid to lukewarm. I gave him a Grade B in the '97 book.
He returned to Triple-A in '97, hitting .304/.349/.498. He also got into 11 games for the Mariners, hitting .154. By this time he was 25 years old. He'd shown the ability to hit for average in the minors, but his power production was only moderate, he didn't run well enough to play center field, and it was an open question if he'd hit enough homers for a corner. I still gave him a Grade B-, projecting that he would "make an adequate regular" and that he "could have some very good years."
Ibanez split 1998, 1999, and 2000 between Tacoma and Seattle. Injuries were a factor in all three seasons, and during his major league trials his playing time was sporadic. It looked more and more like he was a "Quadruple-A" player, very effective in Triple-A but not quite good enough for the majors.
Ibanez became a free agent and signed with the Kansas City Royals for 2001. He stayed healthy and received a legitimate trial as a platoon player in Kansas City, hitting .280/.353/.495 in 104 games, 291 at-bats. He finally became a full-time every day player in 2002 at age 30, and responded with a .294/.346/.537 line with 24 homers, 37 doubles, and 104 RBI.
As you know, he's been a steady and reliable source of production ever since, playing for the Royals, Mariners, Phillies, Yankees, and now back with Seattle again. Overall, he's hit .277/.338/.472 with 296 homers, 113 OPS+, 112 wRC+, with a career WAR of 20.7. His best seasons have been 2009 (WAR 3.6, .272/.347/.552, wRC+ 130) and 2006 (WAR 3.5, .283/.353/.516, wRC+ 121).
WAR hates his defense which cuts into his value by that metric. He's hitting well this year for example (OPS+ 130, wRC+123) but WAR's read on his glovework gives him just 0.5 WAR this year. Still, bad glove or not, a lot of teams would love to have his bat available and he's a remarkably good hitter for age 41.
Looking at Bill James Sim Scores, Ibanez's career hitting numbers are similar to Jeff Conine, George Hendrick, Fred Lynn, early 20th century star Cy Williams, Ruben Sierra, and Moises Alou.
Looking at overall value, among players with a similar amount of playing time, his 20.7 WAR in 7888 plate appearances puts him in the value neighborhood with Tommy Harper (22.8 in 7164), Conine (22.1 in 7782), 1910s/20s outfielder Charlie Jamieson (21.3 in 7488), Tommy Davis (19.9 in 7739), and 1930s/40s star Gee Walker (19.4 in 7211).
There are no bums on these comp lists, but no Hall of Famers either, just very good players.
It took time, but Ibanez lived up to the early offensive potential he showed in the minors, even exceeding it to some extent in the power department. Although he isn't one of the monster hitters of his era, he's been a good one. Any time you get that from a 36th round pick, it's a win.