Mariners Insider Blog

For Ichiro, the hits keep coming in 2011

When the Gold Glove Awards were announced last night, Ichiro Suzuki's 2011 season produced another slight for  the Seattle Mariners right fielder.

He didn't win one after 10 consecutive Gold Glove seasons, and the men who vote for those awards - American League managers and coaches - didn't even have him among the top three right fielders.

No one denies last year was the worst of his 11-year career, a season in which he batted .271 and collected 184 hits. For a man who began the year with a .331 career batting average and had never had fewer than 206 hits in a season, it was a stunning offensive drop off.

The Gold Glove voting may have validated what many of us following the team wrote in '11 - Ichiro's defense fell off, as well. There were times he seemed almost uninterested in right field, tentative one night, conservative the next.

What the Mariners and their fans must ponder isn't whether Ichiro can rebound from 2011, but how much better he can be if he does, and how manager Eric Wedge and his staff can engage Ichiro next spring.

As he enters the final year of a contract that will pay him $17 million, Ichiro will find not only his leadoff spot open to competition but his right field job a question mark, too.

Ichiro batted .341 last season in 41 at-bats as the designated hitter, and his career average as a DH - in 166 at-bats -  is .361. No, the Mariners don't consider him a full time DH, but if Jack Zduriencik lands a corner outfielder instead of an every day DH, it's not hard to see Ichiro spending far less time in right field.

Ichiro is now 38, and his legs have always been his game. Keeping him off of them more frequently might be a way to help him in 2012 and not having a streak of Gold Glove awards now might make that transition a bit more palatable for him.

No one is writing Ichiro off as an offensive force, but the Mariners would be foolish not to approach 2012 with options. It's not at all unlikely that on opening day next year - especially since it will come in Japan for the Mariners - Ichiro will bat first and play right field.

It won't be a surprise, though, if Wedge uses other players in those spots throughout the year. The Mariners will do whatever they can to help Ichiro return to form in 2012. That doesn't mean they won't be prepared to adjust should that not happen.