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Hot Stone League

Larry Stone gives his take on a wide array of baseball issues and weighs in about the Mariners, too.

January 26, 2012 at 2:18 PM

Interesting Ichiro developments on moving out of leadoff spot, contract; Figgins to “play all over”

ichirobates.jpg

(Seattle Times staff photo)

I spend this morning at the Mariners’ annual spring training luncheon, where Jack Zduriencik and Eric Wedge talked at length about the team and its prospects for the upcoming season (along with appearances from Jesus Montero, Mike Carp, Michael Saunders, trainer Rick Griffin, farm director Chris Gwynn, and others).

I’m sorting through all the info, and transcribing tape (that’s the time-consuming part). I’ll put up a more comprehensive post later in the afternoon. But right now I wanted to throw out what certainly will be deemed by most as the juiciest part of the session: Eric Wedge’s assertion that he is “leaning” toward hitting Ichiro in a spot other than leadoff.

I shall pause for the collective gasps of shock.

Actually, it’s not such a shock. As long ago as Sept. 24, with the 2011 season still going on, Wedge threw out that possibility. “I’m not going to commit to him being the leadoff hitter,” he said way back then. He’s repeated that notion a few times this offseason.

But today’s comments went much farther than that. In fact, I got the distinct impression that Wedge plans to make the move, even though he left open the possibility of leaving Ichiro at leadoff. I don’t think he’d bring it up so strongly if he didn’t plan a move, because leaving him at leadoff now might create the impression that Ichiro is calling the shots. Actually, Wedge continues to say that Ichiro is on board with a possible move out of the lineup spot in which he’s been a Mariner fixture for 11 years (for 1,722 of his 1,749 games), and which to a large extent has defined his game.

Here is what Wedge sai, in its entirety:

“It’s as much to do about his teammates as it does with him — in regard to the collective nine we’re putting down on paper. I haven’t made any firm decisions. I’ve made it very clear over the course of the winter I’m thinking about it. I’m even further down the road to where I’m leaning in that direction to have Ichi hit somewhere else.

“I know it’s a big deal to everybody. I can’t get caught up in that. My job is to make sure I communicate that to Ichiro, make sure everyone understands what the options are, and what they’re fighting for, and what I’m thinking about. That’s what I’m going to continue to do.

“Right now, I’m going to be very open-minded to what I’m going to do, but I’m going to go into spring training leaning a certain direction. And we’ll make the decisions from there.”

So where would Ichiro fit in the lineup if not No. 1?

“I don’t know,” Wedge said. “We’ve talked about the 3-hole, I’ve contemplated hitting him second, and there’s still a chance he might leadoff. Ultimately, it’s not just about Ichiro, it’s about our club, and it’s about his 24 other teammates. Ichiro understands that. I damn sure understand it.

“What we’re going to do is make sure we put out the best possible lineup to score more runs. It’s not acceptable the amount of runs we’ve scored the past couple of years. Last year, I sat back, and I bit my tongue off more than once, but it was the right thing to do. My wife was proud of me, let’s put it that way. This year’s going to be a little different, but you don’t go from zero to 60. We’re going to let it out a little more this year, and raise the bar a little bit.”

As for leadoff options if Ichiro isn’t the one, Wedge mentioned Dustin Ackley, Chone Figgins (more on him in a moment) and even Franklin Gutierrez (whose physical improvement was a main topic of conversation today, by the way; by all accounts, he’s healthy and much stronger).

“Those are the first two that come to mind,” Wedge said of Ackley and Figgins. “Guti is interesting to me. I had him everywhere (in Cleveland) from first to second to more power production positions, six or seven. When I saw him this winter, I was thinking more middle of the lineup, he was looking that good.”

Finding a way to revive Figgins is clearly a Wedge priority, and the plan seems to be to turn him into a super-utility guy.

“I’ve talked to him: He’s going to play all over. He’s going to have reps everywhere in the outfield, as well as second, short and third. We’re going to have him all over place, give him every opportunity to play, every opportunity to get at-bats but also play all over defensively. It’s how he broke in in Anaheim. Maybe he’s going to end up establishing himself in one spot and that’s fine, but we’re going to play him all over defensively initially.”

Finally, I asked Jack Zduriencik where contract discussions stood with Ichiro, who enters the final year of his deal. In the article I linked to previously from September, there were indications that extension talks could begin over the winter. But Zduriencik said that’s not the case, that they are going to allow Ichiro to go into, and possibly through, the season on his current contract.

“Right now, at the end of the year, we mutually agreed we’d table any discussions, move forward and play the season and see what happens,” he said. “Anything could happen at any point in time, but right now, our biggest concern is to go into spring training and watch all of our players and let the process work itself out.”

That, of course, leaves open the possibility that Ichiro could become a true free agent for the first time in his career. But that’s getting ahead of ourselves. The more pressing matter, for now, is where he’s going to hit in 2012.

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