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Mariners bring back Ichiro on minor league contract with invitation to spring training

Seattle Mariners' Ichiro Suzuki runs to first on a ground out against the Oakland Athletics during the fourth inning of a baseball game Friday, April 13, 2018, in Seattle. (Ted S. Warren / AP)
Seattle Mariners' Ichiro Suzuki runs to first on a ground out against the Oakland Athletics during the fourth inning of a baseball game Friday, April 13, 2018, in Seattle. (Ted S. Warren / AP)
By Ryan Divish Seattle Times

SEATTLE – Ichiro is returning to the Mariners as player for 2019 spring training and the team’s trip to Japan.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise for Seattle fans despite an offseason plan that has pushed for the team to get younger.

General manager Jerry Dipoto said it was likely to happen when Ichiro transitioned to a front office role of “special assistant to the chairman” in June of last season. He said it again in his season-ending news conference at what used to be called Safeco Field. He reaffirmed it two more times this offseason at the Major League Baseball winter meetings and at the news conference for the signing of Yusei Kikuchi.

On Wednesday morning, multiple outlets reported the team and Ichiro’s representation had reached an agreement on what they had already basically agreed upon when he was removed from the 40-man roster at the end of last May. The remaining details just needed to be finalized.

Ichiro, 45, will sign a minor league contract with an invite to spring training, which the team will officially announce on Thursday at its pre-spring training luncheon along with the signing of a handful of other players to minor league contracts with invites to spring training.

While some fans will roll their eyes at the Mariners’ perceived obsession with their own nostalgia, this was a move they were always going to make if Ichiro wanted to do it. And he spent the remaining months of last season and all of this offseason preparing for a return as a player. He remained in Seattle after the season, working out at the park almost daily in October and early November.

“One thing I’ve learned about Ichiro, his preparation and focus is the best I’ve ever seen in any player I’ve ever encountered,” Dipoto said at the Kikuchi news conference. “His single-mindedness in achieving a goal is so real that I won’t put anything past him.”

It’s what will happen after the Japan trip that will be interesting for Ichiro and the Mariners. He will be report and participate in spring training like any other player. The plan is to take Ichiro to Japan with the team on March 14. Seattle will play two exhibition games vs. the Yomiuri Giants on March 17-18 and then two regular season games vs. the Oakland A’s on March 20-21.

As the most celebrated player to come out of Japan, it will be highly anticipated homecoming for Ichiro. He is expected to participate in the two exhibition games. If the Mariners want him eligible to play vs. the A’s, they will have to select his minor league contract and add him to the 40-man roster and the active 25-man roster to make him eligible. As Dipoto mentioned previously, there is the caveat that both teams will have an expanded 28-man roster for those two games, which makes it much easier to put Ichiro on the team.

But what will happen to Ichiro after those two games when the Mariners return to the U.S. is less settled. The Mariners will have two exhibition games at T-Mobile Park (March 25-26) before their home opener vs. the defending World Series champion Red Sox on March 28. Seattle will have to winnow its roster back down to 25 players.

Will Ichiro remain or be removed?

“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. “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.”

As of now, the Mariners’ projected starting outfield would be Mallex Smith in center field, Mitch Haniger in right field and Domingo Santana and Jay Bruce sharing the duties in left field. Unless they decided to use Bruce at first base more extensively or Santana as a full-time designated hitter, it’s difficult to see them carrying Ichiro as a fifth outfielder. But with the team in an admitted “step back,” it’s possible they could find a way to carry him on the roster beyond those first two games.

A lock for the Hall of Fame, Ichiro isn’t ready to start moving toward that honor. He’s maintained he has no interest in retiring immediately from baseball. He believes he can still play and contribute. But it’s possible that the Mariners have some sort of exit plan agreed upon with him similar to last year’s transition to a front office role that allowed him to still work out with the team and travel on all road trips.

“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.”

Ichiro played in 15 games last season, hitting .205 with a .460 on-base plus slugging percentage.

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