The 2012 Seattle Mariners will have many story lines that will need sorting out before opening day, but none more important then the resurgence of their All-Star right fielder, who has been the face of the franchise since 2001. It goes without saying the Mariners brass believe the fate of their 2012 season will be determined on whether or not Ichiro Suzuki can bounce back from his worst season in professional baseball.
2011 couldn't have gone any worse for the 10-time All-star and future Hall of Famer. Not only did his batting average take on the appearance of a stock market sheet, (Mar/Apr - .328, May - .210, June - .282, July - .241, Aug - .293, Sept/Oct - .268) but his steady game that he made look so effortless, was now becoming a liability. He looked slow - at the plate, where the noticeable difference was in his bat speed. Ichiro's batting mechanics, that once allowed him to do things that most hitters could only dream of, catching up to the off-speed pitches low and away and driving it the other way, was starting to show signs of age. The most evident red-flag was his inability to drive balls with any type of power. Results were either slow rollers to shortstop or slow rollers to the second base side of the infield. Of the 2528 pitches Ichiro saw in 2011, 361 were ground balls, 127 were fly balls, while only 115 were line drives of any type.
His defense was a red-flag in regards to his loss of game/speed. A closer look Inside the Numbers will show you that Ichiro's UZR number was at a -5.7, his RZR was a .937, and his RngR was a -6.3. What does this all mean? Unless a ball was hit directly at Ichiro in right field, he struggled to cover balls hit in the right-center field gap or balls hit into the right field corner. In some instances, including a series in Anahiem against the Angels on Aug 5th thru the 7th, balls that were hit directly over his head in straight away right field, Ichiro had troubles taking correct paths to the wall. Making him look more inept in RF then he aught to have looked in many circumstances as the season progressed.
This will indeed be an interesting season for #51. It will go beyond just playing for a contract extension. (Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik has shelved any contract talk until after 2012) With all the speculation from Mariners manager Eric Wedge about possible lineup changes involving Ichiro's status as a lead-off hitter, the intense year-long scrutiny about his ability to perform at a high level will increase like he has never experienced before from the media or fans alike, in all his time in Seattle. Moreover, Ichiro has to work even harder to earn the trust back from the Mariners fan base. The fallout from his lackluster 2011 season has poured more gas on an incredibly increasing fire regarding his contract status.
2012 will be the final year of a five-year, 95 million dollar deal he signed in July of 2007. With a price tag set at 17 million dollars for 2012, the demand for accountability has gone beyond just rebounding from a bad year. The expectation is for Ichiro to reach numbers most have been accustomed to seeing him perform at. It's about getting back to his numbers of a Hall of Fame candidate.
Can it be done? Perhaps, but i think the real question has to be, has Ichiro really slowed down or was 2011 just a aberration? According to Fangraphs.com, after posting some of his worst numbers ever as a professional, RotoChamp's 2012 projections are as follows. .327 OBP, .355 SLG, .682 OPS, .315 BABIP, .304 wOBA, and a 5.6 BB%. While Bill James has Ichiro's 2012 numbers slightly higher at .347 OBP, .377 SLG, .724 OPS, .334 BABIP, .319 wOBA, and a 6.0 BB%.
Which ever side you lean on as far as projections go, it doesn't take a NASA physicist to see that the Mariners will need Ichiro looking more like the guy who can hit the back of his baseball card then the guy we saw struggling in 2011. For the Mariners success in 2012, and just in the context of Ichiro's career, it will be a season where he cannot get too comfortable. Too much is at stake for Ichiro to be carring the same attitude he has carried year in, and year out since arriving in Seattle in 2001. He has to embrace this team instead of alienating his teammates. Every other Mariner in camp seems to be on the same page, except for Ichiro. Maybe things change as spring training moves on, but if he doesn't adapt, not only do the Mariners stand a chance to have another 90-loss season, but Ichiro's career could very well end too. And for some fans, that would be okay with them.