Seattle Mariners: 10 Reasons Ichiro Will Shine in the No. 3 Spot
Death, taxes and Ichiro batting leadoff...until last week all three were undisputed certainties of life.
Now with the announcement by Mariners skipper Eric Wedge that Ichiro will be asked to bat third, it raises questions about whether or not Ichiro at age 38 will be up for the challenge.
Geoff Baker of the Seattle Times reports that Eric Wedge believes this move will help not just Ichiro, but everyone around him...
"'I feel like the bottom line is for us to have the best lineup, one through nine, out there," Wedge said. "I want our lineup to be extended. I feel like our best opportunity to score runs is with Ichiro hitting third for us. It helps the guy in front of him, it helps the guy behind him."
Up until last season Ichiro seemed destined to play forever with a style so unique, yet so easy to bank upon regardless of how well or more often poorly the Mariners around him fared. Even after a slow start in 2011 most observers continued to wait for Ichiro to break out and go on a tear in reaching 200 hits for the 11th consecutive season.
In the end though, it wasn't meant to be.
Ichiro finished just shy of 200 hits with only 184 and a career-low batting average of .272.
Far from terrible, but well short of the benchmarks Seattle fans had grown accustomed to.
Now in the final year of his contract, Ichiro is being given the chance to redeem himself in an unusual role situated within the heart of the order.
No longer the table setter, Ichiro will now be asked to drive in as well as score runs, and perhaps provide the spark that has been missing from the Seattle offense for several years now.
Can he do it?
Ichiro himself seems to believe...
"'Anything can happen in this game, it's not just leading off," he said, through interpreter Antony Suzuki. "That's the fun part about this game. Like I tell you (media) guys all the time, I'm ready to pitch too. So, like I said, anything is possible."
While it's easy to express doubts, here are 10 reasons I believe Ichiro will not only bounce back, but will ultimately shine at the No. 3 spot in 2012 for the Seattle Mariners.
Plain and simple.
Not since Ichiro first arrived in America in 2001 has he faced this much scrutiny and doubt from fans, foes and pundits alike.
Was 2011 a fluke or the beginning of the end?
Is he too old?
Is he too slow?
Is he tired of playing in Seattle?
Go ahead, doubt him. It will only drive him.
The Seattle Times' Larry Stone captures these sentiments perfectly in his report...
"The first reaction, of course, is to say, 'So why put a guy like that in three hole?' It's a legitimate question. But everyone has seen what Ichiro can do in batting practice when he swings from his heels. Drive after drive into the seats. His career numbers hitting in the clutch are excellent (.333 batting average/.436 on-base percentage/.411 slugging percentage with runners in scoring position in over 1,300 at-bats). And there has always been a sense that Ichiro can do what he wants with a bat, if he puts his mind to it."
Just don't call it a comeback.
It Also Happens to Be a Contract Year
Regardless of what happens this year, Ichiro is far from done playing baseball.
That said, the gentlemen flanked on either side of Ichiro (Mariners team president Chuck Armstrong and general manager Jack Zduriencik) will both likely play a large part in deciding whether or not he continues playing in Seattle.
At the age of 38, moving to the No. 3 spot gives Ichiro a chance to showcase some of the skills beyond racking up hits that have remained "hidden" for the better part of his time playing in the States.
Can Ichiro drive in runs?
Can he show a little bit of pop?
One last potentially big contract will depend on whether he can...or not.
Ichiro Wasn't Himself in 2011
At age 38 one almost has to expect that the human body will start to slow down after performing at such a high level, but to see Ichiro over the course of the season it was hard to judge whether it was that simple an answer.
Did the mental aspect of the game, in addition to the physical, wear Ichiro down a bit?
After years of being on a team with an anemic offense riddled with disappointment, it seemed by August last year that Ichiro was simply worn out. I'm not here to make apologies, in fact I advocated a change of scenery at the time.
Perhaps it was the Mariners dropping 17 straight in July or the lingering trauma of the Japan quake/tsunami earlier in the year, but for the better part of the season it didn't seem like the real Ichiro was there.
When asked this spring by the Associated Press about his conditioning Ichiro responded,
"'I go through the same process in the offseason. I feel fresh, ready to go for the challenge," Suzuki said.
It's only natural he takes a positive approach, but M's manager Eric Wedge seems to see that and more from his initial observations as reported by the Seattle Times' Larry Stone...
'You can already see he's obviously made some adjustments this winter if you watch him take BP," Wedge said. "Ultimately, what I want him to do, I want him to make it his own. He's as smart a baseball player as we have in there. He understands the game very well. He understands what the responsibilities and priorities are with someone hitting third. I'm trusting in that. What he wants to do is what's best for the ballclub. That's what he's doing here."
"Any adjustment he's making is because there's good reason for it in his mind. I don't think he made any changes coming in here from a batting-stance standpoint with regards to just hitting third. I do know one thing: He's stronger. He knew this was an option, and I think he prepared for it."
This Year He Will Have Some Company
Over the winter the Mariners added two players from Japan to their roster for 2012.
While Hisashi Iwakuma should help bolster the M's pitching staff and could be a steal, the early reports from camp have infielder Munenori Kawasaki being regarded as a "clubhouse sensation."
In conversations with Mariners infield coach Robby Thompson, the Seattle Times' Geoff Baker shares...
"'He's already fit in," Thompson said of Kawasaki. "Whether it be the language, or whatever, he's really become a clubhouse sensation. He's just so outgoing and full of life and energy. He loves being at the ballpark and being out on the field. He knows he has a great opportunity here and it looks like he's going to make the best of it."
It's not that we should assume Ichiro will befriend either, it's more the potential that he will be able to enjoy their company in the clubhouse, on the road and in potentially helping both adjust to life in the States.
This might seem to be a small point on the surface, but understand that while living/working overseas it's nice from time to time to have someone you can really talk to who can relate to the good, bad and ugly of being away from home and living outside of your comfort zone.
Not Quite Ready to Give Up the Crown
Whether or not Ichiro befriends fellow Mariner imports Hisashi Iwakuma and Munenori Kawasaki remains to be seen, but it will be awfully hard for him to ignore Yu Darvish.
In case you haven't heard, Darvish is slated to be the next big thing.
Until now Ichiro has served as the benchmark and inspiration for Japanese players playing in the States for the past decade.
Those that have followed since have had a mix of success and in some cases failure, but none have eclipsed Ichiro.
Unlike the last "sure-fire" Japanese superstar to come to the States, Daisuke Matsuzaka, I believe Darvish will take the game by storm and actually succeed long-term.
While no one can really replace Ichiro, Darvish could give him a serious run for the money.
Expect that Ichiro will not go down without a fight.
He Has No Choice
One thing that Ichiro can't really fight is Eric Wedge's decision to shift him to the No. 3 spot.
Ultimately Chone Figgins is getting the leadoff spot, no ifs, ands or buts.
Personally I think it's all part of the Mariners plan to make Figgins marketable enough to ship off come midseason.
Already Geoff Baker at the Seattle Times' is promoting this campaign...
"Chone Figgins works 10-pitch walk, gets on base twice in Mariners intra-squad affair"
Really? A 10-pitch walk...WOW!!!
Nothing short of getting lost in the desert will keep Figgins out of this spot.
He Will Enjoy Having Dustin Ackley Hitting No. 2
On the flipside of Figgins, Dustin Ackley is a gamer and before long could become the face of the franchise.
Now entering his second season and his first full year in the majors though, Ackley won't be able to sneak up on anyone.
Having Ichiro hit behind him, rather than ahead of him should ultimately serve as an advantage.
With Ichiro hitting leadoff, teams could attack Ackley if Ichiro failed to reach base with little fear the rest of the lineup can do much damage.
With the threat of Ichiro hitting behind Ackley pitchers will need to be a bit cautious in approaching him knowing Ichiro is no pushover and can hurt you a number of different ways.
Finally it would almost seem fitting, almost a passing of the torch having Ichiro show the young Ackley what it takes to hit in the No. 3 spot before the Mariners give that role to him either next year or some time in the near future.
He Might Actually Help the Kids Hitting Behind Him Too
If he can help Dustin Ackley, why can't he help Justin Smoak and Jesus Montero?
The potential for power from these two is certainly there, but tapping into it could be difficult if pitchers know they can challenge them.
Enter Ichiro as the big brother of sorts tasked with protecting Justin and Jesus.
On the surface it sounds crazy, yet with Ichiro batting third pitchers will hopefully learn they can't afford to mess around in letting him on base or with those tasked to drive him in.
If Ichiro, Ackley and Chone Figgins can reach base consistently, Smoak and Montero should reap the benefits in facing pitchers who will have little margin to make mistakes.
It might be a bit of a stretch, but in an ideal world it could work.
He Can Cement His Hall of Fame Status
Prior to last season Ichiro appeared to be on a clear trajectory to the Hall of Fame.
While it would seem that last year's performance should do very little to derail his chances, a further decline in his performance could potentially jeopardize what once seemed certain admission to Cooperstown.
What makes the move to the No. 3 spot in the order so intriguing, is the potential risk-reward Ichiro faces.
If he fails, he will be seen by some as a one-dimensional singles hitter who wilted when forced into a clutch role on a young ballclub.
If he succeeds by reinventing himself, he cements his status as one of the best ballplayers of not only the past decade, but arguably all time.
He Will Embrace the Challenge and Enjoy It
He will need to change his approach, that much is clear.
After spending the better part of a decade of being stranded on base, he will finally be given the opportunity to control his own destiny during the course of a ballgame.
As a change of pace I can see Ichiro truly enjoying this.
"How so?" you ask.
Tasked with driving in runners and helping the big boppers behind him, Ichiro will almost take on the role of an assassin in having to choose how to approach his target.
For years we've been told that Ichiro has all the weapons a hitter could possibly dream of, now he is being given the authority to use them accordingly with everything from drag bunt to home run available at the ready.
When you combine this and all of the other factors listed, this move could have the makings of an entertaining year for Ichiro, his teammates and Mariner fans worldwide.