Sep 25, 2011; Arlington, TX, USA; Seattle Mariners right fielder Ichiro Suzuki (51) singles in the ninth inning against the Texas Rangers at Rangers Ballpark. The Rangers beat the Mariners 12-5. Mandatory Credit: Tim Heitman-US PRESSWIRE

Is This The End For Ichiro?

Ichiro Suzuki has surprised us since he came to the Seattle Mariners from Japan, but the 2011 season indicated he is as human as any other player. He showed the first serious signs of decline in his skills and as the 2012 season approaches his ability to contribute is in question.

After 10 brilliant seasons, Ichiro turned in a comparative clunker in 2011 and will be 38 at the start of this season. A decade’s worth of fabulous hitting, of winning batting titles, a Most Valuable Player award, and setting hits records, have left us in awe of the man’s stick control and his speed in the field and on the basepaths have been likened to high quality sports cars.

But after Ichiro’s precipitous decline last year the Mariners have to wonder if his days as a full-time starter and as an All-Star player are over and he is on the verge of being reduced to a part-time starting outfielder/possible designated hitter.

For a decade Suzuki was a masterful table-setter, with brilliant ability to get on base. He hit for high average, could beat out infield hits that other hitters couldn’t dream of turning into something useful, and put a speed demon on the bases to jump-start the offense. Only Ichiro could possibly consider last season’s 184 hits as a bad year. That’s because his average, .326 lifetime still, dropped to .272.

It was the first time Suzuki ever gathered less than 200 hits in a year–a career achievement just once for many players–and it was by far the lowest his average had sunk to when the final bell sounded. Now Seattle manager Eric Wedge has said moving Suzuki out of the leadoff spot to somewhere else in the order will be considered in spring training.

This is a very important year for Suzuki. He is in the last year of his contract, which will pay him $17 million. But it has to be a crossroads season in his mind, as well. Is this going to be his final year? The man has a lot of pride. He had a phenomenal career in Japan before joining the Mariners at age 27 in 2001. He was American League rookie of the year and MVP that season.

Has Ichiro lost speed? Well, just about everybody does by the time they turn 38. More importantly, has he lost the ability to get on base with the frequency he once showed? That is a serious issue. His on-base percentage plummeted in 2011. The question is whether or not that was an off-year or the beginning of a trend. When the player is 38 the harsh assessment, regardless of the history or previous all-around talents of the player, no matter who he is, comes down on the side of beginning-of-the-end conclusions.

Moving Suzuki out of the lead-off spot would be a symbol. But it doesn’t have to be a huge deal once the season starts. If the games begin and Suzuki is a .300 hitter and getting on base, he may well end up back in the lead-off position. If he doesn’t hit and he doesn’t get on base frequently enough, then we might well be witnessing his final season, or certainly his final season as one of the best players around.

Ichiro rarely talks to the media, and uses his language barrier as a wall with reporters, so we don’t really know much about what he’s thinking. I have some guesses, however. Although his Major League career has been shorter than many because of his time spent at home in Japan, he may wonder if he has done enough to become a Hall of Famer. But Ichiro’s numbers have been terrific enough for long enough that shouldn’t be a problem.

He is a 10-time All-Star, has won 10 Gold Gloves, set the single season hits record of 262 in 2004, won two batting titles, collected at least 200 hits in 10 seasons, hit .300 10 times and has 423 stolen bases. Enough said.

Suzuki can’t make up for the past, but I suspect what he would really like to see next to his name when he retires is a hit total that exceeds Pete Rose‘s. For Ichiro the only way that can be accomplished is combining his numbers from Japan and the United States.

Suzuki played nine seasons in Japan and had 1,278 hits. He has 2,428 hits in the U.S. Rose retired with a record 4,256 hits. Ty Cobb had 4,189 hits. Hank Aaron had 3,771 hits. Although Ichiro’s Japanese baseball play is not valued on par with his American play he has a combined 3,706 hits.

I am certain that Suzuki would take great pride in and great satisfaction from knowing he stroked more hits than anyone else in history regardless of how the tabulation was done. If last year was any indication, it doesn’t seem possible that he will top Rose in the U.S. Unless really had things happen, like a serious injury, he should zoom past Aaron this summer.

If he shows enough, maybe Ichiro will sign another contract for a year or two at a greatly reduced pay rate, to finish up his Major League career. Then he could return to Japan at age 40 as a conquering hero, play two more seasons, catch Rose, and parlay his fame into becoming a manager. Home run king Sadaharu Oh (868 dingers to Barry Bonds‘ 762) did it.

These scenarios all make a lot of sense–if that’s what Ichiro Suzuki wants to do.

Tags: Barry Bonds Eric Wedge Ichiro Suzuki Japan Most Valuable Player Pete Rose Sadaharu Oh Seattle Mariners Ty Cobb

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