Ichiro to enter unfamiliar territory as role player
Veteran to chase 3,000 hits in Majors despite shrinking responsibility for Yankees
TAMPA, Fla. -- At the age of 40, the inimitable Ichiro Suzuki finds himself in strange territory.
After more than 20 years across Japan and Major League Baseball, Ichiro Suzuki for the first time finds himself without a position or a starting berth on a Yankees team chocked with high-priced outfielders and Japanese stars.
"He's a player in waiting," Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said Thursday as his team opened its home spring schedule with an 8-2 loss to the Pirates at George Steinbrenner Field. "We have [Alfonso] Soriano, [Carlos] Beltran, [Brett] Gardner and [Jacoby] Ellsbury currently ahead of him. He obviously provides a great deal of speed and defense and is a contact hitter. He's going to be a choice for [manager] Joe [Girardi] off the bench. And that could be a very important role for us."
Asked if Suzuki would be on the Yanks' 25-man roster for the April 1 season opener in Houston, Cashman added: "Oh, no question. Yes!"
Still, given Suzuki's pride, it is hard to believe he will be very happy as an occasional lefty pinch-hitter, pinch-runner or late-inning defensive replacement. Even approaching his baseball dotage, he played in 150 games for the Yankees last season and 162 between the Mariners and Yanks in 2012.
Then there's the matter of reaching the 3,000-hit plateau in the Major Leagues -- counting his 1,278 hits in nine seasons with the Orix Blue Wave, Ichiro passed 4,000 hits last August. Ichiro sits at 2,742 hits in the Majors, a mere 258 away. He spent 11 1/2 years with the Mariners, setting all kinds of records. His single-season total of 262 hits in 2004 bettered George Sisler's peak of 257, and it was one of 10 straight seasons with single-season hit totals above 200.
But those days are seemingly over, as Ichiro's legendary production has faded to 178 hits in 2012 and just 136 in 555 plate appearances last year. At that pace, he will need nearly two full seasons to reach 3,000 hits, and that will not happen in a limited role with the Yankees.
Still, Ichiro on Thursday said through his interpreter that it was too early in the spring to worry about all that. He was in the starting lineup and in right field against the Pirates, flying out and grounding out in his two plate appearances.
"We'll see how it plays out later," Ichiro said. "It's too early to tell what it's going to be. Once the season starts, we'll know where we're at. That's really all I have to say about that."
But barring injury, this is the current reality: During the offseason, the Yanks signed Ellsbury (seven years, $153 million) and Beltran (three years, $45 million) to lucrative free-agent contracts. They just extended Gardner through 2018 for $52 million. Ichiro is signed for $6.5 million, and they owe Soriano only $5 million of the $18 million owed to him by the Cubs in the final year of his long-term deal.
Ellsbury, Gardner and Beltran are injury prone, and Soriano is targeted to spend most of his time as the designated hitter, so the durable Ichiro provides the Yankees a nice security blanket.
"Ultimately and unfortunately, injuries hit," Cashman said. "Full-time jobs open up. I think he can impact us in a real positive way, regardless."
As far as the trade market is concerned, Cashman is always out there exploring, but right now he would rather hang on to Ichiro.
"Anybody is tradable if it makes sense, but I see him in an important role for us," Cashman said.
This spring's Yankees camp has what is probably the most heralded group of former Nippon Professional Baseball players ever assembled at the same time on one team.
Masahiro Tanaka is the hot new pitcher, Hiroki Kuroda is back on the roster, and even Hideki Matsui is here for a few weeks as a hitting instructor.
"Brandon Steiner should engage them and get some sort of lithograph with all their signatures on it," said Cashman, referring to the chief executive of Steiner Sports Marketing, the official purveyor of Yanks memorabilia. "He'll make a lot of money."
But with 4,020 career hits when including his total from Japan, Ichiro may at this moment have the most noteworthy history of any of his current Japanese clubmates.
Matsui and Ichiro are longtime rivals from their years playing against each other in Japan. While Ichiro was collecting base hits, Matsui was hitting homers and winning multiple Japan Series titles playing for the Yomiuri Giants, Japan's closest resemblance to the Yankees. The Big Matsui was also named MVP when the Yanks defeated the Phillies in the 2009 World Series after hitting .615 with three homers and eight RBIs in the six games.
Ichiro, with all those hit records and no championships to show for it, said he did not seek hitting advice from Matsui, who remains an icon in Japan and drew immense attention when he first came to camp as a hitting instructor for his old Yomiuri club earlier this spring.
"I only just talk to him about regular, life stuff," Ichiro said. "Nothing baseball related."
Matsui replied that he viewed Ichiro and his accomplishments from afar and with immense respect.
"I don't think I'm even in position to comment on what he has done in his career from when he started playing baseball," said Matsui, who played a combined 10 years in the Major Leagues with four teams and retired in 2012. "That really speaks for itself. The way he looks and the shape he keeps himself in, I think he still has another 10 years."
Ichiro said he appreciated the sentiment. When asked how long he intended to play, he demurred.
"Let's say I'm not going to play until I'm 60," Ichiro said.
The next few months may certainly dictate all that.
Barry M. Bloom is national reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Boomskie on Baseball. Follow @boomskie on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.