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Originally published February 18, 2012 at 7:21 PM | Page modified February 18, 2012 at 8:09 PM

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Ichiro starts spring facing most uncertainty since 2001 season

Not since 2001, when he came here as an international man of mystery, has Ichiro entered a Mariners season surrounded by so much uncertainty and with so much at stake.

Seattle Times baseball reporter

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PEORIA, Ariz. — Not since 2001, when he came here as an international man of mystery, has Ichiro entered a Mariners season surrounded by so much uncertainty and with so much at stake.

Then, he had to prove he could adapt his idiosyncratic style to the MLB game, very much an open question at the time. Even his manager, Lou Piniella, had his private doubts, until he famously challenged Ichiro one Peoria morning to prove he could pull the ball.

Ichiro, of course, did just that, lashing the ball to right field in at-bat after at-bat. He went on to win the batting title and Most Valuable Player Award, and embarked on a storied career that paved the way for other position players from Japan. For 11 seasons, he was as reliable as the tides. In February, you could pencil in 200 hits, a .300 average, an All-Star appearance and a Gold Glove. By year's end, he'd have them all.

And then last year, the human metronome went off-kilter. For the first time, he didn't reach any of those milestones, hitting an unfathomable .272. In October, Ichiro turned 38. Next October, his Mariners contract is set to expire, and he could become a free agent for the first time.

It is against that backdrop of intrigue and mounting questions that Ichiro on Saturday began his 12th Mariners spring. It's one that could lead to another startling change by opening day in Tokyo: Ichiro vacating the leadoff spot that has always been such a huge part of his identity.

Here's what Ichiro has to prove this time around: That he can still be a player of impact. That he can adapt to the new requirements of another spot in the order, and adjust to the inevitable ravages of time. That he can, at an age most players are winding down their career, rejuvenate himself.

I wouldn't bet against an Ichiro revival. He showed up here in tremendous shape (as always), and with an edge, the kind prideful players use as motivation.

"I'm happy a lot of people say that I suffered last year," he said through interpreter Antony Suzuki.

Ichiro acknowledges that he had "a tough year, don't get me wrong," but indicated that it's all in the context of having conditioned people to his sustained success.

"When I came in 2001, if people around me had felt that same way toward the same numbers that I came up with last year, then people would feel happy as well," he said. "If those numbers were in '01, a lot of people would have said, 'Hey, that guy can't play.' The expectation is very high, is what I'm trying to say."

Earlier this winter, Mariners manager Eric Wedge broached the distinct possibility that Ichiro will move out of the leadoff spot. On Saturday, Wedge said he hasn't brought it up with Ichiro yet this spring. Then again, Ichiro didn't show up in camp until Friday afternoon.

"As you know, I had multiple discussions with him this winter as well as with other people," Wedge said. "I'll have further discussions here early on in spring training, and when it's time, I'll let you guys know what I'm thinking and what we're going to do. I'll get it out to you."

Ichiro said he's open to the move — as Wedge said he had been when he brought up the possibility last season.

"It's too early. We just went through our first workout," Ichiro said. "But I can say this: I'm always prepared for a new challenge. That's how we all have to move forward. If that (a move) is the case, we're out there to perform as a baseball player, and go all-out."

Wedge decided not to move Ichiro out of leadoff back then, but I have the distinct sense he aims to follow through this year. If I were a betting man, I'd predict the Mariners open with Chone Figgins at leadoff in a last-ditch effort to reawaken his batting stroke.

Wedge hasn't indicated where Ichiro would hit if not first, but it would likely be second or third. Here's what Ichiro said Saturday when asked if his approach would be different if he wasn't hitting first.

"I think it's tough to change your hitting style just because you're in a different spot," he said. "So it's difficult to say if my hitting style would change."

Ichiro declined to address his Mariners future beyond 2012, saying only, "I don't think it's necessary for us to talk about contract, because it's not going to change my approach. I work hard, regardless."

That's only fitting, because Ichiro's future right now is so murky. It will only become illuminated as the season progresses and we see if the dynamic Ichiro of old has returned.

Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or lstone@seattletimes.com


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