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Ichiro wouldn’t solve Chunichi’s problems

by Jason Coskrey

While it’s still improbable, Ichiro Suzuki and Daisuke Matsuzaka could both be wearing blue and white this summer if everything falls in place, as the Chunichi Dragons have interest in both players.

The moves — getting Ichiro at least — would be huge in terms of attention and probably ticket sales both in Nagoya and across the Central League. How it would help the Dragons in the win-loss column is a harder answer to pin down.

As is usually the case in anything involving Ichiro, he is by far the more interesting of the two. Matsuzaka hasn’t had anything to show for his return to NPB in 2015, having made just one top-team appearance in that time. Dice-K is also much more likely to join the team, with a tryout scheduled for Jan. 23, and an invite to break “spring” camp with the top team in February on tap if all goes well.

Ichiro returning to Japan (still a long shot), however, would be beyond interesting and fun, as everyone will want to see how the veteran, who could’ve started penning his speech for the Baseball Hall of Fame years ago, navigates a return to Japan.

But as fun as that would be, it’s doubtful Dragons fans could expect it to usher in a return to the upper echelon of the Central League.

Chunichi is currently on a run of five straight sub-.500 B-Class seasons in the CL. The team, which began this decade with back-to-back CL titles, has finished either fifth or sixth each of the past three years. The slick machine former skipper Hiromitsu Ochiai wheeled to four pennants and a Japan Series crown from 2004-2011 is out front on cinder blocks now. Not that Ochiai’s hands are completely clean, having presided over the club as its GM through losing seasons in 2014 and 2015.

The Dragons are at a place where they need to build for the future around their younger players, such as rookie of the year Yota Kyoda.

Ichiro could absolutely provide the younger Dragons with a great example to follow in terms of preparation and how to approach the game. Further, the lessons Ichiro could teach would be invaluable.

But is that a role he wants to play? Would the Dragons run the 44-year-old star into the outfield everyday or would he mostly serve as a pinch hitter, as has been the case in MLB the last several years. Would either get the Dragons closer to regular contention again, which presumably is the goal?

Ichiro is one of the greatest ever, but the 2001-2011 version wouldn’t be walking though that door, and the Dragons aren’t a 44-year-old outfielder away from righting the ship. You don’t chase Ichiro to keep him on the bench, but Chunichi has a future to try and develop at some point.

And neither Ichiro, and probably not Dice-K either, is the cure to the pitching staff, or likely to inject more runs into the lineup.

Ichiro has repeatedly expressed his desire to keep playing until his 50s — which sounds funny until you consider Ichiro is Ichiro and Julio Franco played in 55 MLB games as a 48-year-old in 2007. He’d also rather keep playing in MLB, making a return to an NPB club still a longshot.

“I don’t really like to think about that,” his agent John Boggs told Barry Bloom of MLB.com last week. “As every day goes by, I keep holding out hope that somebody will realize that he would be a tremendous asset for any organization.”

There is undoubtedly baseball left in Ichiro and a legion of fans dreading the day he finally retires. For the Dragons, its a worthy pursuit, as long as they don’t forget they’re also actually supposed to be trying to develop a successful ballclub.