SEATTLE -- The Mariners are rebuilding their roster with an infusion of young talent this offseason, yet a 45-year-old Ichiro Suzuki is still expected to be part of the club when it opens the regular season.Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto intends to keep his word to the man who has
SEATTLE -- The Mariners are rebuilding their roster with an infusion of young talent this offseason, yet a 45-year-old Ichiro Suzuki is still expected to be part of the club when it opens the regular season.
Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto intends to keep his word to the man who has spent 13 of his 18 Major League seasons in Seattle, which means an opportunity to be part of the 28-man roster that opens the regular season on March 20-21 in the Tokyo Dome against the A's.
There are a few steps between now and Tokyo, of course. Ichiro is a free agent, so he'll need to be signed -- presumably to a Minor League contract with an invitation to camp -- and then he needs to stay healthy this spring before being promoted to the Major League roster prior to the trip to Japan.
The Mariners and A's each will be allowed to carry three extra players for the Opening Series and Ichiro figures to be on the 28-man roster. Chances seem slim that he'll remain with the big league club when that group is trimmed to 25 for the resumption of the regular season the following week back in the United States, but don't try telling Ichiro that quite yet.
The 10-time All-Star has been working out diligently in Japan this offseason before flying to Seattle for the holidays, which is why he was able to meet newly signed free-agent pitcher Yusei Kikuchi for the first time on Thursday.
For Dipoto, it's a matter of respect and acknowledgment of the importance of Ichiro in Mariners history that he'll keep the veteran on board even amid the rebuilding process.
"Ichi will be on our team when we go to Tokyo," Dipoto reiterated on Thursday. "He'll be an active player. We are still committed to the idea of developing this roster. Mitch Haniger is going to be our right fielder, Mallex Smith is going to play center field and Domingo Santana will be the primary left fielder. And we'll find at-bats for Jay Bruce, whether they be in left field, DH or occasionally at first base.
• Kikuchi unsure whether Ichiro is real or 'a person in the sky'
"That's the way we envision the 2019 season playing out. But one thing I've learned with Ichiro, first of all his preparation and focus is the best I've ever seen on any player I've ever encountered. His single-mindedness in achieving a goal is so real that I won't put anything past him."
When the Mariners were hit by a series of injuries in their outfield last spring, Dipoto signed Ichiro to fill the void and bring one of the franchise's all-time greats back to his roots. Ichiro hit just .205/.255/.205 in 47 plate appearances in the first month before being moved into a role as "assistant to the chairman," which allowed him to continue working out and hitting with the team every day despite not being eligible to play in games.
Whether Ichiro has anything left will be seen this spring, and Dipoto isn't committing to more than just being on the roster for the two Tokyo games.
"Frankly if he rolls out in Tokyo and gets seven hits in two games, there's a pretty good chance he'll play a third game," Dipoto said with a smile. "You have to adjust as you go. We're not going to predetermine anything. We'll give him the opportunity to come in and do what he does, and prepare the way he prepares."
Ichiro's mere presence helped the Mariners recruit Kikuchi and it remains to be seen if he'll remain in a front-office or coaching type role whenever retirement ultimately comes.
"We want Ichiro to be part of the Mariners in perpetuity," Dipoto said. "But if you talk to Ichi, he is so focused on this, and he knows he can still play. We can't cross that bridge until we get to that bridge. Because anything more than that would be predetermining an outcome and he won't be able to focus on those games."
Greg Johns has covered the Mariners since 1997, and for MLB.com since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @GregJohnsMLB.