PEORIA, Ariz. -- Ichiro Suzuki, who has spent nearly all of his 11 years in the Major Leagues as the leadoff hitter for the Mariners, said Saturday he's open to a new role if that's the direction manager Eric Wedge wants to go in the coming season.
Over the offseason, Wedge talked openly about the possibility of moving Ichiro down in the lineup. The two have yet to resume that conversation at Mariners camp, with Ichiro just arriving on Friday and being on the field with his teammates for the first time Saturday as full-squad workouts began.
But after a season in which his batting average and on-base percentage dropped to career-low marks of .272 and .310, the 38-year-old didn't sound opposed to the idea of a different spot in the order if that is what Wedge decides.
"It's too early," Ichiro said through interpreter Antony Suzuki. "We just went through our first workout. But I can say this. I'm always prepared for a new challenge, and that's how we all have to move forward. If that's the case, we're just out there to perform as baseball players and go all out."
Wedge has pondered batting Ichiro second or third in the lineup, with Chone Figgins or Dustin Ackley as potential leadoff candidates. Ichiro has always displayed an ability to hit with power in batting practice, but has focused on being more of a typical leadoff hitter and accumulating base hits in impressive numbers over the course of his career.
Would he change his approach if moved down in the lineup?
"I think it's tough to change your hitting style just because you're in a different spot," he said. "So it's difficult to say if my hitting style will change, because it's not easy as a player to change just because you're all the sudden hitting somewhere else."
Wedge said Saturday he hasn't sat down with the veteran yet this week.
"I haven't had that discussion with him," the second-year manager said. "As you know, I had multiple discussions with him this winter, as well as with other people. I'll have further discussions here early on in Spring Training, and when it's time to let you guys know what I'm thinking and what we're planning on doing, we'll get it out to you."
Ichiro didn't make the All-Star team, win a Gold Glove or reach 200 hits for the first time in his Mariners career last season. But asked if he expected a comeback season, he indicated a bit of an edge toward any perception that he has slipped as a player.
"We always feel fresh and always feel open to new challenges every year," he said. "That's never changed. I feel the same way this year. But I'm happy that a lot of people say I suffered last year."
He feels any criticism toward his play in 2011 just indicates how much he's raised the bar from what people expected when he first arrived in the United States.
"It was a tough year, don't get me wrong," Ichiro said. "But when I came in 2001, if people around me had felt that same way toward the same number that I came up with last year, then people would feel happy as well. ... If those numbers were in '01, a lot of people would have said, 'Hey, that guy can't play.' The expectation is very high, is what I'm trying to say."
Entering the final year of a contract that pays him $18 million a season, Ichiro said he didn't need to discuss an extension. Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik has said he'll wait until after the season to broach that issue.
"I don't think it's necessary for us to talk about a contract, because that's not going to change my approach," Ichiro said. "I work hard regardless. I don't want to talk about negotiations or contractual issues."
He is looking forward to the Mariners opening this season in Tokyo, and is enjoying new Japanese teammates Munenori Kawasaki and Hisashi Iwakuma, who both signed with Seattle this offseason.
"It's a new experience, and it's definitely a different year," said Ichiro, who grew up in Kobe, about two hours from Tokyo. "We've never had that opportunity before, so it's new for me and new for the team. This is something we'll probably have once in our lifetime, so I look forward to that and would like to take advantage of it."
The continuing influx of Japanese talent, with Yu Darvish joining the Rangers as well, is a point of pride for the man who was the first position player from his country to come to the Major Leagues.
"I would like to say that I have a lot of pride in our country," he said. "But that is what I'd like to keep for the future, because you look at other countries, Venezuela, the Dominican Republic, they have a lot of stars that perform at this level. When you compare Japan to those countries, we're not there yet. That's what I look for in the future."