General manager Jerry Dipoto said Ichiro will likely be with the team when it travels to Japan

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The Mariners’ “special assistant to the chairman” will give up that title and return to the field for something other than just pregame batting practice and shagging fly balls for 2019 spring training.

In Monday’s media session to wrap up the 2018 season, general manager Jerry Dipoto confirmed that Ichiro won’t be continuing his created front office role within the organization next spring, but will be back on the field as a player.

“Ichi will be in spring training with us,” Dipoto said. “He’ll be in spring training with us, and we’re going to give him an opportunity as both a coaching presence and a player presence. And we’re still a long way off from opening day next year, but you will see Ichiro taking at-bats in Peoria, and we will assess where we are at that time. But don’t be surprised if you see him running around out there when we get to Tokyo next year early in the season.”

For Ichiro to return as a player and participate in spring training games, the Mariners must remove him from his “front office position” and sign him to a standard contract, likely a minor league deal.

This isn’t an unexpected development. Ichiro signed a one-year free agent contract to return to the Mariners last spring after Ben Gamel suffered a torn oblique, making the opening day roster as a backup outfielder. He played in 15 games, batting .205 with a .460 on-base plus slugging percentage.

After staying on the roster for the first month of the season, which sources said was part of his contract, the Mariners moved him to his new front office role that basically was being a player without actually being allowed to play in games. Ichiro suited up daily, took batting practice, took fly balls in the field, ran sprints, worked out in the weight room and hit in the cage during games. He was like every player, except he couldn’t participate in games or be in the dugout during games — though he skirted that rule at least once.

But there was a reason for all that practicing. Sources said the Mariners had an agreement with Ichiro when he moved to his new role that he would be invited to 2019 spring training as a player with the opportunity to travel with the Mariners to Japan in March to open the season. That trip includes two exhibition games vs. teams from Nippon Professional Baseball and the first two games of the regular season vs. the A’s. 

Because the Mariners can carry an expanded active roster of 28 players for that trip, there’s a chance he will be on the opening day roster. After those two games, the Mariners will likely have to remove him from their roster. And Ichiro’s future after that is basically up to him, though he’s been resistant to retiring from baseball.

“I will stop short of guaranteeing it because we have to ensure that he’s healthy, but he’ll be on roster,” Dipoto said. “Don’t be surprised when we open in Tokyo if Ichiro is out there. We feel strongly that it’s the right thing to do for our franchise. We think it’s the right thing to do for the NPB. And believe it’s the right the thing to do for Ichiro. What happens there after remains to be seen.”