MLB.com Columnist

Barry M. Bloom

At 42, Ichiro could reach 3K hits in '16

At 42, Ichiro could reach 3K hits in '16

JUPITER, Fla. -- For the first time, a new season will dawn with Ichiro Suzuki on the brink of reaching the coveted 3,000-hit mark. He's 65 hits away, at 2,935.

Ichiro is now 42, and the hits have come in dribs and drabs in recent seasons. He was so prolific that at one time he set a Major League record with 200 hits or more in his first 10 seasons after coming over from Japan and signing a contract with the Mariners in 2001.

Ichiro's 262 hits in 2004 is also the Major League standard, having broken what was at the time George Sisler's 84-year-old record of 257 set in 1920. That season as well, he hit a career-high .372 and won his second and last American League batting title.

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But that was then, and this is now.

"Obviously, getting 3,000 hits will be an unbelievable, great achievement," Ichiro said through his longtime interpreter, Allen Turner, after the Marlins finished their first day of full-squad workouts on Tuesday. "But you have to look at it from where I'm at. I'm the fourth outfielder. If I was a starter heading into this year, I think it would be a little different.

"If I was penciled in every day, leading off as the right fielder, then I could say, 'Hey, in two months I should be there.' It's tough for me to comment on, because I just don't know how much I'm going to play and how long it's going to take."

For the fourth year in a row, playing for the Yankees and Marlins, Ichiro heads into the season as a fourth outfielder, left-handed pinch-hitter and late-inning defensive replacement. That's clearly not where he wants to be be. On one hand, Ichiro wants Miami's starting outfield of Giancarlo Stanton, Christian Yelich and Marcell Ozuna to be productive and remain healthy.

"But at the same time, I want to play, too," said Ichiro, who remains in top shape.

Adding his 1,278 hits for the Orix BlueWave, Ichiro goes into the season with 4,213, and will pass Pete Rose's 4,256 before he even reaches 3,000. But he's been mostly a part-time player since the Mariners traded him to the Yankees in July 2012, and that's not going to change this season under new Marlins manager Don Mattingly.

Aware of milestone, Mattingly won't overuse Ichiro

"We'll use him in multiple roles as a guy off the bench who can fill in anywhere in the outfield," Mattingly said. "We're just going to work him into our mix. He probably played more games last year than he needed to play. You're asking a lot of him. If we get to that point, we're probably not in a very good injury situation.

"The plan is not necessarily to limit his time, but we want to make sure we're not overusing him."

And that's what's happened the past three seasons. With the Yankees in 2013 and '14, Ichiro wound up with 879 at-bats because of multiple injuries to teammates. Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira missed most of the 2013 season and Ichiro played in 150 games, batting .262 with 136 hits.

In 2014, Ichiro started against certain right-handers and was used in spot duty with Carlos Beltran nursing a sore elbow. Though Ichiro still played in 143 games, he was limited to 359 at-bats, hitting .284 with 102 hits.

Last season, Ichiro's first in Miami, Stanton broke the hamate bone in his left hand while swinging the bat, and after undergoing surgery, was limited to 74 games. Ichiro played 153 games, perhaps too many.

How important is it to get Ichiro enough at-bats so he can reach the 3,000-mark sooner rather than later?

"I think he's earned the right to have the opportunity to do that," said Barry Bonds, the Marlins' new hitting coach, who finished his career with 2,935 hits to go with his all-time-leading 762 home runs. "I feel like he has the right to do it any way he feels set, pleased and happy about doing it. And I think baseball should honor that. He's earned that right."

Mattingly, though, has to balance Ichiro's goals with the overall goals of the team.

"I'd like him to get them, but the main thing is winning games," Mattingly said. "I think I read something that Ichiro wants to play another five years, so he's going to get them. As an organization, we're here to win, and we've got to play the guys that put us in the best position to win, and that's what we're going to do."

For his part, when asked how long he intends to play, Ichiro said, "to at least 50," with an emphasis on "at least." But he's not in his fourth decade as a player because he's pursuing any records.

"In the offseason, I would practice every day. I love it," Ichiro said. "It was an exciting day for me today to come in here and play baseball again. There's not a number or a certain record I'm trying to reach. That's not why I'm playing the game. I'm playing the game because I love the game.

"That said, I don't know where my place is going to be on this team. It's something I still still have to figure out."

Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Boomskie on Baseball. Follow @boomskie on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.