The 200 hit streak is not the only thing that could perhaps come to an end soon for Ichiro. Hitting leadoff may not be far behind. In a conversation I had with Eric Wedge today about another player, he revealed that the lineup for next year is very up in the air. One through nine.
"I'm not sure what the lineup is going to be next year," he told me. "I am not sure how we are going to use Ichi, where everyone else is going to play out. To have some flexibility is important."
As the offense struggled this year many suggested that Ichiro should hit lower in the order with the thought being he could drive in runs. The team appears to have more options now but regardless of possible need elsewhere in the lineup, Ichiro's numbers indicate that unless there is significant improvement he is no longer suited to hit in the leadoff position.
His career numbers in the first at bat of a game are an impressive .315/.345/.794 but they have fallen off dramatically in the last two years with a .284/.315/.689 in 2010 and a .235/.255/.611 this year. He has gotten on base 39 times to start 154 games.
In an interview I did with Ichiro two years ago he admitted that there would be a time when he would need to change his game. He was very aware that his skill set would change with age. He laughed at the idea that he could just flip the switch and become a three hitter as many have suggested. We have seen him drive the ball at times throughout the season but we have never seen a commitment to that approach. He has appeared for the most part to still want to be Ichiro the leadoff hitter. Turns out he was almost moved this year.
"Earlier in the year we had discussions about potentially moving him," Wedge told me while acknowledging that his commitment from the start had been to keep him in the leadoff spot all the way through the year.
"I felt at that point in time we were close to pulling that trigger but I felt in the end it was best to leave him in the leadoff spot this year and let that play out. A lot of that was not just about him but, who are you going to put in that leadoff spot and what does that do to the rest of your lineup? I felt it was best to leave that alone this year."
While the thought has always been that Ichiro would want an offseason to prepare for a role change, he was approached about the possible move and according to Wedge was willing to drop down in the order.
"I did talk to him and he was on board," he said. "He was open to it at that time but as we saw it through the next couple of days and seeing the domino effect it could have, I felt it was best to leave it alone."
There have yet to be conversations about a move next year but Wedge said that he believes he has candidates to lead off should Ichiro be moved.
"It has to play out throughout your lineup," he cautioned. "I just want to put the best 1-9 out there and do it as such where we can be consistent about it. If you are going to make a move like that you need to be pretty sure about it."
As for Ichiro's numbers leading off games this year, I asked Wedge if they perhaps were an indicator that it was time to change his approach.
"I don't know," he answered. "Those are going to be conversations we are going to have. I do think there is a lot more in there. You watch him take BP and occasionally drive the ball the way he does. I think it just depends on the kind of hitter Ichiro wants to be. I can't speak for what is going through his mind but I think the first thing we have to do is what I have said all along, is we have to see this thing through then sit back, evaluate everything, and start having conversations."
What kind of hitter does Ichiro want to be? Traditionally he begins workouts a day or two after the season ends. Will he gear those workout to trying to get back to Ichiro the speedy slap-hitting leadoff hitter or will he devote his time to preparing to drive in runs lower in the order? That is the $18 million question.
News and notes: The Mariners held a brief team meeting before batting practice today to discuss possibly playing games in Japan to open next season. According to assistant players rep Chris Gimenez the meeting was an opportunity for the players to ask questions ahead of a meeting the Players Association will have with MLB. The talks to play in Japan are in the preliminary stages with much to be worked out including sponsorship and scheduling following the games. ... Mariners on the mend. Justin Smoak returned to the lineup tonight and Casper Wells is expected to join the team in Texas. ... From Twitter today (and if you don't follow me you really should @shannondrayer): "Add magician to the teacher and bartender. Chance Ruffin doing card tricks in the clubhouse. #Marinersbullpen".