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Friday, June 22, 2012 - Page updated at 08:00 p.m.
What should Mariners do with Ichiro?
By Geoff Baker
Seattle Times staff reporter
PHOENIX — One thing you quickly notice about Ichiro whenever he breaks another record is the company he keeps.
When he became the fourth-fastest to reach 2,500 hits Tuesday, he was again mentioned with Al Simmons, Ty Cobb and George Sisler. And as Ichiro marches through the 496 remaining hits to reach 3,000 in the major leagues, we'll hear about his combined totals from Japan, and whether he and Pete Rose share something in common.
At least, that's one vision of how the future will unfold.
But before it can become reality, the Mariners will need to decide where Ichiro fits in their future. And that's no easy thing to do for a 38-year-old with a worse on-base percentage than hitting lightweight Brendan Ryan — and out of the leadoff spot to boot — while carrying Hall of Fame credentials.
First, before the future can be discussed, the Mariners have to figure out how to get through 2012.
"He's going to have to understand that it's not a bad thing to take a day off every now and again," Mariners manager Eric Wedge said after Ichiro responded to a rare day off Monday by notching four hits upon his return. "I know what he's conditioned for and that he wants to play every single day. But ultimately, what we're looking for is to get the most out of everybody every single day."
It's not just Ichiro's .288 OBP or the .375 slugging percentage from a guy who's spent the entire season in either the OBP-required leadoff position or the slugging-heavy No. 3 spot.
More alarming has been his penchant for chopping balls back to the mound or the right side of the infield. While his defense remains stellar, the revived bat the Mariners had hoped for had seemingly vanished for good.
Then, after one day off, the line drives were back. And yet, Ichiro did not seem to completely accept that he had needed a day off when asked whether he agreed with Wedge that they aren't a bad thing.
"It kind of depends on how you're given that day off," Ichiro said, through interpreter Antony Suzuki. "(Monday) was tough for me. It was fairly regretful because you want to go out there and perform. But then, I understand the skipper's situation.
"Regretting is something I have in my heart, but then, at the same time, that becomes a motivation to want to come back. What I'm saying is that there are different patterns to being given a day off."
However, every player on the team has had days off to prevent fatigue as well as when their performance has dropped.
There is also the question of the Mariners and their rebuilding plan, which is in its fourth year and second manager, all under general manager Jack Zduriencik.
The team fired Wedge's predecessor, Don Wakamatsu, two years ago after he lost support of the clubhouse largely over his handling of Ken Griffey Jr. Just like Ichiro, Griffey was another Hall-bound former superstar whose numbers were a shadow of what they'd been.
Griffey, however, wasn't close to any milestones and merely wanted to find a dignified way out of his career. With Ichiro, the specter of 3,000 hits still looms two or three seasons away.
When asked by a reporter this week whether he had his eye on 3,000 hits, Ichiro replied that it was a bad question, seemingly indicating he's prepared to shoot for 3,000.
And that dynamic poses both short- and long-term questions for the Mariners.
The question of whether to sign Ichiro beyond 2012 aside, the goal of reaching 3,000 hits may spur him to want as many at-bats as possible this year.
While Ichiro continues to play right field every day, the Mariners have been forced to juggle younger outfielders — most notably Casper Wells, the team's hottest-hitting outfielder — to find them playing time.
Wells has already endured a stint at Class AAA because of a roster crunch. Upon returning, the right-handed hitter has gone 11 for 21 and is erasing the idea he's merely a platoon player by punishing right-handed pitchers.
Wells is hitting .275 with an on-base-plus-slugging percentage of .820 versus left-handed pitching this season and .357 with an OPS of .879 against right-handers.
Wedge is interested in seeing Wells play more, but if Ichiro plays every day, the Mariners can't get the extended look at Wells they'd need to deem him Ichiro's successor. The issue would be less thorny if Ichiro hit like a typical right fielder.
Ichiro was adamant this week that he's used criticisms of his play throughout his career as a motivator.
"Because that's just my style," he said. "That's just how I show my playing attitude. Some guys say this sport is entertainment, but then I take it to a different level. I don't take it as entertainment. I love this game, obviously. But then there's more to that than just entertainment. That's how I like to build myself, build my life and transfer it over to my fans."
Ichiro also made clear he doesn't always respect those making the criticism.
"At times, we hear criticism from guys that are good evaluators," he said. "And at the same time, we get evaluated by guys who don't know much about the game."
There is plenty of truth to that, but the same numbers that have Ichiro ticketed for Cooperstown — 2,504 hits and counting, 10 consecutive 200-hit seasons, and a lifetime .327 batting average — have not been so kind of late.
They show him with a .305 OBP going on 1 ½ seasons and a .352 slugging percentage over the past two calendar years combined — the worst of any qualifying right fielder in the majors.
Those numbers demonstrate just why this situation is becoming increasingly difficult for the Mariners, no matter how many legendary names Ichiro continues to hang with.
Geoff Baker: 206-464-8286 or email@example.com. On Twitter @gbakermariners.
Read his daily blog at www.seattletimes.com/Mariners
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