Ichiro officially returns
January 23, 2019
The Mariners announced today that they have re-signed franchise icon Ichiro Suzuki to a minor-league contract with an invite to spring training.
It was an expected move, telegraphed all the way back in May, when the team moved Ichiro off the active roster and into a non-player role with the title of "special assistant to the chairman," an invented position that allowed Ichiro to train and travel with the club but not suit up for games. At that time it was clear that Ichiro was not retiring as a player and intended to try to play again the following year.
The contract stipulates that Ichiro will be an active player for the Mariners while they are in Japan to start the 2019 season, both in exhibition games against the Tokyo Yomiuri Giants and the regular-season opening set against the Oakland A's at the Tokyo Dome, during which the Mariners and A's will be allowed an extra three players on their rosters. Ichiro will be paid at the rate of a $750,000 salary for the time he is on the Major League roster.
While guaranteeing his presence for the Japan opener, the contract says nothing one way or another about subsequent regular season games. Should he perform well, there's no reason to assume Ichiro would be finished after the M's leave Tokyo, and given the team's intention for 2019 to be a transitional year with no expectations to contend, there's perhaps more room to carry the 45-year-old as a fifth outfielder/pinch-hitter into the season.
One factor in such a decision, of course, will be the makeup of the roster as a whole. Currently, the M's have two veterans on the squad in Edwin Encarnación and Jay Bruce that they do not particularly want and may well trade away before they jet off to the far east—at the moment, the starting outfield consists of Mitch Haniger, Mallex Smith, and a platoon of Bruce and Domingo Santana with Encarnación penciled in at DH. Ichiro's chances to stick would increase significantly if Encarnación and/or Bruce are dealt before or during spring training.
"Frankly," said Mariner General Manager Jerry Dipoto, "if [Ichiro] rolls out in Tokyo and gets seven hits in two games, there’s a pretty good chance he’ll play a third game. You have to adjust as you go."
Ichiro's agent, John Boggs, says his client fully intends to play on. "He's not looking at [the Tokyo series] like it's the end. He's working toward playing the whole season," Boggs told Kyodo News. "Just to see his dedication to his craft is amazing. You start wondering whether you're that dedicated to your craft. The work he puts in, the uniformity of his mindset is like a laser beam."
Last year, the Mariners brought Ichiro back midway through spring training thanks in part to injuries to other players. He suffered a calf injury himself before the season began and perhaps didn't fully recover before resuming his regimen; regardless, he opened the year with the M's and batted just .205 in 47 plate appearances before being taken off the active roster.
The future Hall of Famer has spent the offseason in his native Japan working out and preparing for the new season, just as he has in past offseasons, looking to impress his Mariner bosses and make the squad with a strong preseason performance.
"Ichiro is the most focused player I’ve ever encountered," Dipoto said. "I would be surprised if he wasn’t driven by the desire to play the full season. It’s how he’s wired, and if anyone could pull it off, I’d bet on him."