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Ichiro is probably coming back to the Marlins in 2018

And that’s a good thing.

MLB: Miami Marlins at Washington Nationals
Michael Owens-USA TODAY Sports

When the Marlins pursued Ichiro in the 2014-2015 offseason, it was a Jeff Loria fueled idea, who probably saw an opportunity to give a legend his farewell tour (and the chance to make a couple bucks off of the pursuit of career hallmarks, chief of which was the 3,000 hit club).

Due to injuries (Giancarlo Stanton) and production issues (Marcell Ozuna), Ichiro would end up logging 438 plate appearances as the primary outfield back-up. While he acquitted himself well enough in the field, he was pretty bad up at the dish, slashing .229/.282/.279 with an overall negative fWAR contribution. He at least gave us one memorable offensive highlight, though:

If you thought he was done after posting such numbers, you wouldn’t be the only one. It was bittersweet, as he was still shy of 3,000 hits. Loria and company never wavered in their commitment to retaining Ichiro, however. They were determined to see Ichiro get his 3,000th hit in a Marlins uniform.

The Marlins doubled down on the veteran with a second one-year, two million dollar deal, and a club option of the same amount for 2017. Few of Loria’s baseball decisions made him look smart; this was definitely one of them. Not only did Ichiro get his 3,000th hit in 2016, he also rebounded nicely, hitting .291/.354/.376 in 365 plate appearances and posting 1.4 fWAR. With a performance like that under his belt, it was almost a given that his club option would be exercised, and it was.

2017 ended up being a challenge for Ichiro. The injuries that allowed him ample playing time in the outfield the past couple of seasons failed to materialize, forcing Ichiro into the role of left-handed, pinch-hitting specialist. It’s not easy for anyone who has been accustomed to regular playing time throughout his entire career to take on a sporadic bench-role, let alone a creature of habit such as Ichiro.

“The only thing I’ve gotten used to,” Ichiro said after a mid-season contest “Is that I don’t think I don’t think I’ll ever get used to it.”

Indeed, through the first half of the season, he looked cooked, posting an anemic .238/.208/.237 line in 105 plate appearances. Ichiro’s pride wouldn’t let him back down from this particular task, however, and the work ethic that has sustained him throughout his career finally began to pay dividends in the second half, where he hit .305/.374/.379, coming up a hit shy of besting John Vander Wal’s record for pinch-hits in a season (28).

So now we come to 2018, where Ichiro will be 44 the entire season and easily the oldest position player in the game. He has definitively slowed down on the basepaths, he doesn’t quite have the range he once had in the field, and his bat wavers between awful (2017 first half) and great (2017 second half). No one would dare question his drive, but one can certainly wonder if he is capable of taking on a larger workload should the outfield injuries mount up again as they did in 2015-2016.

Of course, we don’t know who else will be in said outfield in 2018, with Derek Jeter now at the helm. This offseason is one of the more intriguing ones in recent Marlins history, but when it comes to Ichiro and Jeter, one thing we know for certain is that the former Yankee captain has mad respect for his one time teammate.

Jeter has been hinting at a rebuild, and it’s certainly anticipated thoughout the baseball world, as Marlins impending payroll obligations coupled with expected losses the next couple of years are well documented. So does a rebuilding club have room for a 44-year-old, two million dollar pinch-hitter?

You bet it does.

Jeter values clubhouse chemistry, he values leadership, and he values worth ethic. Ichiro is thought to contribute to the first two; he defines the third. I can hear the statistically-inclined sighing inwardly; bear with me. What better role model to have sitting on the bench beside you than a guy who visits the batting cages a couple of times during each game just to stay ready? A guy who stretches virtually every time he’s standing? The current players on the roster love Ichiro; surrounded by a rebuilt cast of characters, he’d be a virtual demi-god to them.

If Jeter and company end up successfully shedding some of the larger contracts from this payroll, what’s two million to them if they’re paying league minimum salaries to youngsters gathered up from around baseball?

And let’s not pretend like Ichiro’s presence on the roster is blocking some promising young player currently entrenched in the Marlins relatively barren farm system. Brian Miller is interesting enough, but no one else is particularly close or is someone you would look at and say “Yeah, we can get a decent facsimile of Christan Yelich out of that guy.” Sure, you could promote Destin Hood and have him serve as a capable fourth outfielder, or go fishing for a league minimum lefty bat off the bench somewhere, but that player A. does not bring the intangibles that Jeter claims to covet in cultivating a winning culture, like Ichiro does, and B. probably wont be as good of a pinch-hitter as Ichiro has become.

Ichiro showed in the second half that he is still a capable hitter, and he has acquitted himself well enough in limited playing time out in the field to pass as a fourth outfielder. At this point, given all that we know, it would be a surprise if he didn’t return for a fourth season with the Marlins. At the close of 2015, people had begun to wonder whether it was the end for the one-time superstar. Now the question is not whether Ichiro is going to play again, but if he’ll be doing so in Miami. If I were a betting man, the answer would be yes. We’ll find out soon enough.