Wedge: Ichiro will bat third this season
Figgins, Ackley in running to hit Nos. 1, 2 for Mariners
By Greg Johns / MLB.com | 02/21/12 5:15 PM EST
PEORIA, Ariz. -- After 11 seasons as one of the premier leadoff hitters in the game, Ichiro Suzuki will be moved to the third spot in the Mariners' lineup this season, manager Eric Wedge said on Tuesday.
Looking for an offensive spark for a team that has finished last in the American League in scoring three straight seasons, Wedge said Chone Figgins and Dustin Ackley will be the likely Nos. 1 and 2 hitters, respectively, in Seattle's lineup ahead of the 10-time All-Star.
"He's as smart a baseball player as we have in there, and he understands the game very well," Wedge said. "He understands what the responsibility and priorities are with somebody hitting third, and I'm trusting in that.
"I had a good talk with him yesterday. It wasn't out of left field, because we've had discussions [previously]. He's on board. He's ready to go."
Wedge talked about making a switch over the offseason, so the news wasn't shocking to those involved. But it still shook things up Tuesday at Mariners camp to hear officially that Ichiro would have a different role after leading off for 1,720 of his 1,733 starts over 11 seasons in Seattle.
"I came prepared mentally because there was a possibility I'd be hitting elsewhere," Ichiro said through interpreter Antony Suzuki. "I was always prepared to do what is best for the team. So if this is the case, this is the best for me to do."
How strange will it be to hit third? "Anything can happen in this game," Ichiro said. "It's not just leading off. That's the fun part about this game. That's what it is. Like I tell you guys all the time, I'm ready to pitch, too. Anything is possible."
Ichiro, 38, saw his batting average slip to a career-low .272 last year, and his on-base percentage was just .310. Wedge hopes the move to insert Figgins in the leadoff role helps ignite the former Angels All-Star, who has struggled for two seasons batting second behind Ichiro.
"I'm confident he can get back to his old self as the leadoff hitter," Wedge said. "That's when he was the Figgins that produced, that got on base and scored runs, and was really a pain for opposing teams. I feel like, to give him the greatest chance to get back on track and succeed is to put him back in that role."
Wedge said he wasn't setting the Nos. 1 and 2 hitters in stone, but that Figgins and Ackley were the leading contenders at this point.
Figgins hit just .188 last year in 81 games, but says he's healthy now after battling a hip labrum injury and feels better suited for the leadoff role.
"You've got guys like Ichiro, Garret Anderson, [Dustin] Ackley, guys who are just good hitters," Figgins said. "And I've always seen myself as more of a battler. I keep saying that, and people don't really understand what I'm saying, but I'm going to make it rough on you over the course of a game.
"I may not get two hits in a game, but I may have two walks and two runs scored," he said. "And for me, that's a win, especially if we win. More importantly, if we win. I gave you hell that night, without getting a hit. And that's something I have to get back to understanding, the way my game is. To give you hell on both sides of the ball."
Ichiro said he didn't know if the move would help Figgins, "but we all have to hope this is the right thing for the team. If this is it, we'll have to give it our best and play to our performance."
Ichiro has been working on a new, more-open batting stance throughout the offseason, but he said hitting third won't result in him trying to hit for more power at this point.
"The situation of hitting third won't change my approach in my hitting style," Ichiro said. "It'll only change the situation with runners on base."
For Wedge, the decision comes down to wanting to field what he figures will be his most-productive batting order.
"I've done a lot of thinking about it this winter, and talked with the coaches and [general manager] Jack [Zduriencik] and everyone," he said. "Bottom line is, for us to have the best lineup, one through nine out there. I want our lineup to be extended. I feel our best opportunity to score runs is with Ichiro batting third. It helps the guy in front of him, the guy behind him and it helps him."
Wedge said the decision would stand for the season, and wasn't just a Spring Training experiment.
"I had the opportunity to watch Ichiro and all these other guys all of last year, and this is our best fit," Wedge said.
Ackley, who quickly became one of the team's top hitters after a mid-season callup last year as a rookie second baseman, figures nothing much changes for him batting second instead of third, as he did in 2011. But he'll be among those watching Ichiro with interest in his new role.
"It'll be kind of a big change, but everybody can see what he can do in [batting practice]," Ackley said. "He can hit home runs with anybody. For me, it's not going to be that big of a thing, because I think he can handle that spot as well as anybody."