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

May 14, 2012 at 1:09 PM

Would Wedge move Ichiro DOWN in the order?

ichirothird.jpg

(Photo by Associated Press)

Eric Wedge had some interesting comments yesterday regarding Ichiro that sure sounded like he might not be long for the three-hole. And Geoff has some followup quotes from Wedge today in which he talks about the need for Ichiro to pick up his production.

Talking to reporters before Sunday’s game in New York, Wedge said this: “Ichiro, he’s not a prototypical three hole hitter. He is not a guy who is going to be doing a lot of damage. He is going to get his hits. Hopefully he gets them at the right time.”

That doesn’t sound like a ringing endorsement to me of the early-season lineup experiment, the first half of which — Chone Figgins leading off — has already been deemed a failure by Wedge. And then when Shannon Drayer asked Wedge if he had Ichiro and Dustin Ackley penciled in at one and three going forward, he said this:

“I don’t know where either one of them are going to end up. It depends on what the supporting staff does because I feel like all of them have a lot more upside. Whether Ack ends up 1, 2, 3 or Ichiro 1, 2, 3 or somewhere else, we will see. It just depends on what we see production-wise.

“Ichiro by no means is your prototypical three hitter but that’s where we need him right now and if it comes to a point in time where we feel we need him somewhere else that’s when we will do that.”

I don’t know how you can read that and not conclude that the manager is iffy about Ichiro in the three hole. After all the talk in spring training about a new batting style, and whether Ichiro could re-invent himself, I think he deserves credit for giving it a valiant effort. I’m convinced he’s tried to drive the ball more, and that’s reflected in his increase in balls in the air, and decrease in balls on the ground. But so far, the results haven’t been overwhelming. Ichiro, through 36 games, has a .285/.329/.389 line, with a .718 OPS. Compared to other No. 3 hitters in the American League, Ichiro’s OPS ranks 12th of 14, ahead of only Kansas City’s No. 3 hitters, and, amazingly, the Angels, where Albert Pujols has put up a .510 OPS from the three-hole (I’ll bet good money that won’t last). The Mariners’ No. 3 hitters had an .716 OPS last year — pretty much the same as this year — and .705 the year before (but with 23 homers and 90 RBIs, numbers Ichiro won’t match. He is hitting .212 with runners in scoring position, with a .626 OPS, quite a comedown for a guy who has always thrived in the clutch. His lifetime RISP average is .330, with a .842 OPS).

For now, Dustin Ackley is doing a fine job in the leadoff spot. In 11 games as the leadoff hitter since replacing Figgins, he is .310/.408/.476 (.884), compared to .221/.275/.305 (.580) in 23 games hitting second. That’s great production from the leadoff spot, but I think the Mariners envision Ackley, long-term, as their No. 3 hitter. Taken as a whole, Ackley’s numbers this year don’t justify moving him into that spot, but if he takes off as I think most of us think he is capable of doing, that option will obviously have to be re-visited.

The obvious corresponding move would be to move Ichiro back to leadoff, where he hit his entire Mariner career before 2012. The question I have, from parsing Wedge’s comments — a favorite pastime of the media — is this: Did he just drop a hint that if Ichiro moves from the three-hole, it might be in the other direction? Look again at what he said: “Whether Ack ends up 1, 2, 3 or Ichiro 1, 2, 3 or somewhere else (emphasis mine), we will see. It just depends on what we see production-wise.”

Maybe I’m reading way too much into off-the-cuff comments, but the “somewhere else” part intrigues me. Could Ichiro drop to the lower part of the order? Like, sixth, seventh, eighth or ninth (I think we can safely eliminate fourth, and probably fifth)? At one point, moving Ichiro to the bottom of the order would have been unthinkable. Wedge, I believe, has ruled that out in the past out of deference to Ichiro’s stature. But he also seems to be running out of patience with his veterans, and has shown that he’s not above making some heavy-handed moves.

Ichiro, of course, is not Chone Figgins, Brendan Ryan, Jack Wilson or Milton Bradley. He’s headed to the Hall of Fame, and has been the face of the Mariner franchise for a decade. In my opinion, he deserves to be treated with deference and respect — but there is also a point at which you have to do what is best for the team. I will be watching closely to see what Wedge’s next move is with Ichiro. While his on-base percentage is the best on the team, that’s damning with faint praise. Even the most ardent Ichiro fan would agree that he’s not the hitter he was in his prime. While his numbers are up across the board from last year, they are far below what he put up for the first 10 years of his career.

As I’ve said before, there’s no shame in this. He is 38 years, when it is quite natural for a career to hit its downside. In spring, I predicted a strong bounce-back year from Ichiro, and he’s undoubtedly made visible improvement. But so far, he’s not yet approaching vintage Ichiro. Perhaps that is due to the adjustments he’s made trying to adapt to hitting third. That’s impossible to measure. One part of his game that has definitely improved is his defense. My naked eye tells me he’s been much better in right field, and his UZR stats reflect this as well.

My hunch is that if Ichiro is moved out of the three spot, it will indeed be back to leadoff. There aren’t many other options for Wedge if it’s not Ackley. In fact, there’s only one that seems viable to me: John Jaso. He’s hardly the traditional leadoff type, but someone that Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon saw fit to hit there 45 times in 2010 (on a playoff-bound team). Jaso put up an outstanding .380 on-base percentage. His OBP now is .327, but that’s with very sporadic playing time. Yet for Jaso to get regular playing time either at catcher or DH would require a phasing out of Miguel Olivo, which is another hot-button item right now. Jaso at leadoff is something to tuck away, however.

It must be said that the move of Figgins to leadoff this year was not just about a last-ditch effort to get Figgins going. My sense is that it also reflected Wedge’s dissatisfaction with Ichiro’s performance as the leadoff hitter last year, including nuances like looking at a lot of pitches in the first at-bat of a game so the rest of the lineup could get a feel for the pitcher. That doesn’t mean he won’t put Ichiro back at the top of the order, the lineup spot from which he soared to so many great achievements, including two batting titles and the major-league record for hits in a season, not to mention a decade’s worth of 200-hit campaigns. As I said, I suspect he would. But perhaps it’s not a guarantee, either.

It will be very interesting to see how long Wedge sticks with Ackley hitting first and Ichiro third — and where they end up next.

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