When manager Eric Wedge was in Japan two weeks ago, promoting the opening-day visit this March of the Seattle Mariners and Oakland Athletics, his first press conference drew nearly 200 members of the Japanese media - and their first question was whether he was serious about moving Ichiro Suzuki from the leadoff role.
Wedge said he was, and there was an audible gasp.
Yes, Ichiro remains an icon in his homeland, and 11 years into his major league career, he is coming off the first season in which he didn't hit .300 or better (.272), collect 200 or more hits (180), make the All-Star team or win a Gold Glove in right field. Wedge thinks it may be time to find another role for Ichiro.
The issue is, what role? The Mariners don't want Ichiro to feel dishonored, so the options are few. Ichiro will bat first, second or third in the Seattle lineup this year. Are either the second or third spot in the order a better fit?
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Ichiro's on-base percentage last year was .310, well below the league average and 60 points below his career average. As a leadoff hitter, he walked 39 times in more than 700 plate appearances and was as likely to swing - and make contact with - the first pitch he saw as any other.
Does he have the discipline to take pitches as a No. 2 hitter, allowing whoever the leadoff man is to attempt to steal? As important, given Wedge's use of the bunt, is he willing to lose at-bats by sacrificing the runner up a base?
Traditionally, the third spot in the batting order is reserved for the team's most consistent hitter, and it's a role where production is expected. Early in his career, Ichiro was considered a candidate to hit third, but only rarely was tried there. Once a maramong the American League's best hitters with men in scoring position, Ichiro last year was solid - a .302 avaerage with RISP, accounting for 40 of his 47 RBI.
Still, Ichiro is hardly a classic No. 3 hitter. Many of his hits never leave the infield, others are soft line drives in front of outfielders. Hits are hits, but those particular hits won't often score a runner from second base.
If Ichrio isn't batting leadoff, how will he adapt? The Mariners aren't certain, and while it's not their greatest concern heading into spring training next week, it could be an issue. Part of it would depend upon Ichiro's role, but some of it may depend upon who does bat first if Ichiro doesn't.
The Mariners would love it if Chone Figgins took the job and ran with it in spring training, but in his first two season in Seattle, Figgins hasn't take any job - in the batting order or on the field - and made it his own. Whether Figgins is the starting third baseman or a super utility player working all over th field, he has had success leading off in the past. The Mariners would love to find a role where Figgins could succeed.
Dustin Ackley is another candidate to bat first. A patient hitter who works counts, Ackley batted .300, .308 and .283 in his first three months in the majors, then faded badly in September, hitting .219. Even so, his OBP of .348 was solid - and his OBP in Tacoma was spectacular (.421). Ackley has the pest-potential teams love to have leading off.
The Mariners have plenty of things to work out in camp before opening the season March 26 in Tokyo. One of them is where Ichiro, now 38 and in the final year of his contract, fits in their batting order. Where ever it is, Seattle needs a rebound season from the man who has more hits than any player in franchise history. He will open the 2012 season with a .326 lifetime batting average, 2,428 hits and 1,127 runs scored in 1.749 games.
Ichiro has earned the respect Wedge and the team will give him, and if he doesn't bat first, he'll hit second or third in the lineup. How successful the Mariners season is will depend in no small way to what Ichiro does.