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Dipoto: Ichiro provides flexibility, to play regularly

44-year-old franchise icon to play 4-6 days a week to open season
MLB.com @gregjohnsmlb

PEORIA, Ariz. -- For those assuming the Mariners signed Ichiro Suzuki strictly as a tip of the cap to their former star or as some sort of marketing stunt, think again. General manager Jerry Dipoto didn't sign the 44-year-old to sit on the bench.

Speaking on his latest Wheelhouse Podcast, recorded shortly after Ichiro's introductory news conference on Wednesday, Dipoto expanded on how the Mariners plan to deploy the man who spent much of last year in a pinch-hitting and part-time role with the Marlins.

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PEORIA, Ariz. -- For those assuming the Mariners signed Ichiro Suzuki strictly as a tip of the cap to their former star or as some sort of marketing stunt, think again. General manager Jerry Dipoto didn't sign the 44-year-old to sit on the bench.

Speaking on his latest Wheelhouse Podcast, recorded shortly after Ichiro's introductory news conference on Wednesday, Dipoto expanded on how the Mariners plan to deploy the man who spent much of last year in a pinch-hitting and part-time role with the Marlins.

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• Listen to The Wheelhouse with Jerry Dipoto

Dipoto noted that Ichiro's agent, John Boggs, approached him shortly after last season ended about a potential reunion, but there was no fit once the Mariners traded for Dee Gordon to go with their returning outfield trio of Ben Gamel, Mitch Haniger and Guillermo Heredia.

That changed when Gamel strained his oblique muscle last weekend, an injury that could keep him out as long as two months. With Haniger and Heredia just now returning from their own health issues, Ichiro figures to play 4-6 days a week, according to Dipoto, until Gamel's return.

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"We don't envision an organizational icon sitting on the bench regularly," Dipoto said. "There had to be a way we could get him regular at-bats and allow him to do the things he's capable of doing. You can see in the second half of last season, whether in high-leverage situations or given the chance to play a little more regularly, he's still quite a good player and can do a lot of really strong things."

Ichiro hit .255 on the season last year, but .299 in the second half, albeit in a limited role. He started just 23 games in the outfield in 2017, with 109 of his 215 plate appearances coming as a pinch-hitter.

Ichiro will primarily play left field for Seattle, but is capable of filling in for Haniger in right, if needed. And Dipoto said even when Gamel returns "now we have that versatility and increased flexibility that we didn't have before."

Dipoto notes that Ichiro was still receiving around 400 plate appearances in recent seasons until last year, when Giancarlo Stanton, Marcell Ozuna and Christian Yelich all stayed healthy for the Marlins and there "wasn't much room at the inn" in a stacked outfield.

Video: Ichiro on returning to city of Seattle

The obvious question is how productive Ichiro can be at 44, but Dipoto believes he's a unique individual and raised comparisons with Rickey Henderson, a supremely conditioned athlete who also played through age 44 because of his love for the game.

"Going through the physical with Ichiro from the orthopedic exam to the physical exam, we saw some of the most shockingly positive reviews in a medical that you can achieve," Dipoto said. "We're used to looking at players in their mid-20s who are very athletic people and Ichiro makes them all look like they're not taking care of themselves. He's an incredibly well-conditioned athlete."

Video: Ichiro discusses his desire to play until age of 50

The Mariners don't expect Ichiro to play forever, but "we didn't want to go find a long-term solution to a short-term problem, we wanted to go find a mid-term solution to a short-term problem that had a chance to be a positive addition for us," Dipoto said.

"We feel Ichiro can step in and play regularly in left field. He's almost platoon-immune. In fact, he has reverse splits and handles left-handed pitchers better. The worst-case scenario for us is Ben Gamel returns a month later than expected, but we have Ichiro to get us through. The best-case scenario is we have that group of four -- Haniger, Heredia, Gamel and Ichiro -- surrounding Dee Gordon and they're all versatile and fit together.

"We weren't looking to carry that many outfielders, but I guess desperate times call for decisions you wouldn't otherwise have made. We are going to go into the season with five outfielders, with Ichi being one of them. And we'll see how it plays out. I hope we're in a situation where eventually we have to determine what we're going to do come May and June, but for now, we're just playing it out and we'll use the best players we can."

Greg Johns has covered the Mariners since 1997, and for MLB.com since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @GregJohnsMLB.

Seattle Mariners, Miami Marlins, Ichiro Suzuki