44-year-old Ichiro will be a baseball rarity

Few position players have suited up at that age or older

March 6th, 2018

has stood out from the crowd since he made his Major League debut in 2001, and that remains the case as he is set to return to the Mariners, pending a physical that was scheduled for Monday.

Last season was Ichiro's 17th since arriving from Japan, and he spent it with the Marlins as a fourth outfielder and frequent pinch-hitter, getting into 136 games and running his MLB hit total to 3,080, 21st all-time. He did all that at age 43, making him three years older than the closest position player (the since-retired ) and five years older than any other hitter slated to return in 2018.

While Ichiro remains a tireless worker who keeps himself in peak physical condition, he also turned 44 on Oct. 22, and there is little precedent for position players suiting up in the big leagues at that point.

Since Hall of Famer Sam Rice roamed the outfield for the 1934 Indians, just six have played a position in their age-44 season or later (based on age as of July 1 that season). That excludes Minnie Minoso, who played a total of five games in his 50s as a designated hitter and pinch-hitter, as well as Manny Mota, who pinch-hit once as a 44-year-old.

With Ichiro now ticketed for a return to the Safeco Field outfield in 2018, here is a look at the six most recent position players he is following.

2011-12: Omar Vizquel

The renowned defensive wizard was an everyday shortstop as late as 2007, when he manned the position for the Giants at age 40. Vizquel then transitioned into a part-time role, including with the White Sox in '11 and the Blue Jays in '12. He moved around the infield during those final two years but still became the first player since 1918 to spend time at shortstop at 44 or older. While the switch-hitter batted just .244/.276/.294 from 2011-12, his 78 additional hits brought his total to 2,877, pushing him past Hall of Famer Mel Ott on the all-time list (where he now sits 43rd).

2003-07: Julio Franco

How much of an outlier is Franco? Since at least 1901, there have been 14 player seasons of at least 100 plate appearances at age 44 or older. Franco is responsible for five of those, including the only three with an OPS+ of at least 100 (league average). Those came ages 44-46, when Franco produced a .295/.367/.447 line (110 OPS+) over 849 plate appearances, contributing to three straight Braves division championships. Franco finally declined after that but still became the oldest position player to log at least 10 plate appearances in a season -- playing his final game with the Braves as a 49-year-old in 2007.

2003: Rickey Henderson

The amazing Henderson broke Lou Brock's all-time record for stolen bases in 1991 and then played a dozen more seasons. Even with a spot in Cooperstown waiting for him, Henderson hung on for as long as he could. He began 2003 crushing the competition in the independent Atlantic League with the Newark Bears before signing with the Dodgers for the second half and playing in 30 games. While the results weren't great, Henderson added to his record totals in steals (1,406), runs scored (2,295) and walks (2,190), though the last of those marks soon was passed by Barry Bonds. Henderson went on to play two more seasons of independent ball but never returned to the Majors.

1992-93: Carlton Fisk

There have been 68 games started by catchers age 44 or older since 1908, and Fisk is responsible for 64 of those. An All-Star for the final time in 1991, Fisk saw his offensive production plummet over his final two years with the White Sox (.220/.295/.295), but he broke Bob Boone's record of 2,225 games caught on June 22, 1993. (Coincidentally, the young opposing catcher for the Rangers that day, Ivan Rodriguez, would take the record from Fisk 16 years later.) That was Fisk's final game, as the Sox soon released him. He made it to the Hall of Fame on the second ballot in 2000.

1986: Tony Perez

Perez enjoyed one of the most productive seasons by a 43-year-old in 1985, batting .328/.396/.470 (138+) over 2,017 plate appearances. The Hall of Fame first baseman then signed on for another year with the Reds but fell off considerably, with a .255/.333/.355 slash line. While he went deep just twice, one of those came in the second to last game to bring his career total to 379.

1985-86: Pete Rose

Rose was both Perez's teammate and manager over his final two seasons, filling that dual role for a pair of second-place Reds clubs after getting traded back to Cincinnati from Montreal in August 1984. "Charlie Hustle," by this time solely a first baseman, was an All-Star in '85 and remained a productive hitter (99 OPS+) on his way to breaking Ty Cobb's all-time hits record that September. Rose found much less success the next year (61 OPS+) but pushed his total to 4,256 hits.