By John Boyle
Mariners manager Eric Wedge said last month that he was leaning in the direction of moving Ichiro Suzuki out of the leadoff spot in the batting order and on Tuesday he told reporters in Arizona that Suzuki will hit third to start off the season. Wedge also confirmed what he had hinted at previously, that Chone Figgins will get a crack at the leadoff spot, which is where he hit when he was at his best with the Angels. Dustin Ackley will likely open the season as the No. 2 hitter.
“I’ve done a lot of thinking about it this winter of course,” Wedge told reporters Tuesday. “… I feel like our best opportunity to score runs is with Ichiro hitting third for us. I think it helps the guy in front of him, helps the guy behind him, helps him.”
Moving Suzuki out of the leadoff spot is a significant move considering he has been a regular in that spot since coming to Seattle in 2001, but it’s easy to understand Wedge’s desire to shake things up. By nearly every statistical measure, the Mariners have had the worst offense in baseball the last two years, and Suzuki is coming off of his worst season in the Major Leagues, hitting .272 with a .310 on base percentage.
Suzuki no doubt will say the right things this spring about the move, but how he handles it once the season starts will be an interesting subplot come April. When discussing the possibility of the move last month, Wedge said he can’t be worried about one player’s preferences when it comes to trying to fix what has been a very bad offense.
“Ultimately, it’s not just about Ichiro, it’s about our club, and it’s about his 24 other teammate,” Wedge said. “Ichiro understands that, and I damn sure understand it. What we’re going to do is make sure we put out the best possible lineup to score more runs. It’s not acceptable the amount of runs we’ve scored the last couple of years.”
After Wedge broke the news, Suzuki said following through a translator, according to MLB.com: “I came prepared mentally because there was a possibility I’d be hitting elsewhere. 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.”
While moving Suzuki is perhaps going to make more news, putting Figgins in the leadoff role is the riskier move for Wedge. Figgins was pretty bad in his first season in Seattle, and downright awful last year before an injury ended his season prematurely (though his playing time had decreased significantly by then anyway).
Wedge is hoping that getting Figgins in the lineup every day, mostly at third base, and in the spot in the lineup where he is most comfortable, will help Figgins regain some of the form that made the Mariners sign him to a big free-agent deal in the first place.
“I’m going to give Chone Figgins the first shot at it,” Wedge said. “I’m confident that Figgins can get back to his old self as a leadoff hitter. That’s when he was the Figgins that produced, that got on base, that scored runs. He was really a pain for opposing teams when he did leadoff for Anaheim. I feel like to give him the greatest chance to get back on track and succeed is to give him that opportunity to lead off for us.
If Figgins does indeed turn things around, this decision will look inspired. Either the Mariners will have a productive player at the top of their lineup, or perhaps a commodity they can shop around at the trade deadline. If Figgins stumbles out of the gate, however, it will be interesting to see how short of a leash Wedge has with him.
A pretty compelling argument can be made that Figgins has done nothing to deserves this chance, and that by giving it to him the Mariners are stunting the growth of younger players who could be playing in his place, but he’s still on the Mariners payroll, so they’re going to try to get something out of that rather large investment.