Is it the beginning of the end for Ichiro?

PEORIA, Ariz. — The AL West might be the most intriguing division in baseball this year, crammed with enough big-time storylines for a season’s worth of captivating topics.

Will Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson turn the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim into a perennial powerhouse and win the battle for Los Angeles baseball? Will Yu Darvish live up to the hype for the Texas Rangers? Will Josh Hamilton beat back his substance-abuse demons with a career season in his contract year? Will the Oakland A’s even remain in Oakland?

All these storylines make for a scintillating season. But perhaps the most interesting story in the 2012 AL West will happen more quietly amid the often-forgotten Seattle Mariners, who lost 95 games last year while finishing 29 games out of first place and enter this season with little hope of improvement.

And that storyline is this: Will 2012 mark the continued decline of one of the greatest pure hitters of our time, Ichiro Suzuki, a man whose astounding career has been wasted on a mostly moribund team?

After all, Ichiro will make $17 million in the final year of his contract. He’s 38, and his always-impressive numbers took a dive the last couple seasons, last year bottoming out with a .272 average and a .310 on-base percentage, both career lows. Those are barely acceptable numbers for a power hitter, much less a player like Ichiro, the man who made the single sexy again (and who once told the New York Times, “I think there’s sexiness in infield hits because they require technique”). He finished last year with only 30 extra-base hits, including only five home runs.

So we can’t help but wonder if this, in fact, is the beginning of the end.

And if it is, it would mean a career that’s been as outstanding as it’s been disappointing. After all, Ichiro’s Mariners have had six last-place finishes in the past eight seasons and haven’t made the playoffs since Ichiro’s rookie year. His numbers might smack of Pete Rose, but remember this: Charlie Hustle won three World Series.

Asking these questions of Ichiro is not as easy as you’d think. He’s famously one of the most impenetrable personalities in baseball, and he declined an interview request through a team spokesman.

On a recent morning at the Mariners’ spring training complex in Peoria, Ariz., Ichiro jogged out from the clubhouse and began stretching with teammates. Standing by the chain-link fence, with a camera and a sign reading “Ichiro” in Japanese, was Sachiko Kawamura. She’d traveled to Arizona for her first spring training because she wanted to see Ichiro up close.

It wasn’t the 150 Japanese media members who tailed Ichiro constantly during his rookie year with the Mariners in 2001. It wasn’t even what was happening down the road at the Rangers’ complex in Surprise, where a dozen Japanese reporters documented Darvish’s every move.

But it was something, something that spoke to the rare type of superstar Ichiro has been: one who has not just been an outstanding player but who, like a Yao Ming or a Tiger Woods, has opened his league’s marketing machine to a whole new frontier.

“He’s very strict with himself — he trains very well every day,” Kawamura beamed, explaining her affection for Ichiro. “He’s still young. He’s still great.”

Well, not quite.

He came into the majors late, at age 27, having already accumulated 1,278 hits in Japan. He burst onto the American scene in 2001 for the Mariners team that tied the big-league record with 116 wins; Ichiro won both Rookie of the Year and MVP, and his work ethic set a new standard. That year was the first in 10 straight seasons of 200-plus hits, a big-league record, including his 262 hits in 2004 — yet another record.

It’s a career that ought to make him a lock for the Hall of Fame, especially considering that his 3,706 hits between Japan and Seattle would put him at fourth in baseball history, only 550 short of Pete Rose’s record.

Baseball is a game that worships numbers like no other. But it’s one thing for fans to worship numbers; it’s quite another when a player does. And that’s long been the knock on Ichiro: He’s a selfish player, shooting for his annual 200-hit milestone more than he shoots for winning ballgames. He’s been known to swing away rather than hit behind the runner, not take a walk because that would mean one less chance at a hit, try for singles rather than home runs.

But things will change for Ichiro this year. First off, he’ll no longer bat leadoff, moving down to third in the lineup and ceding his coveted top spot to speedster Chone Figgins. And then there’s the question of his batting stance. Anyone who’s watched Ichiro in the past knows that unorthodox, pendulum-like swing where he shifts his weight forward and makes every hitting coach cringe. In the offseason, Ichiro tweaked his signature swing, opting for a wider, more balanced stance, not lifting his front leg and keeping his hands low.

“Ichiro is his own coach,” Mariners hitting coach Chris Chambliss told “He doesn’t really confer with me, and why should he? He’s had a great career without me. Ichiro knows what he’s doing. He knows how to play the game. He knows how to hit. A lot of the adjustments he makes are on his own.”

This adjustment, in theory, ought to make him less of a singles hitter and more a middle-lineup guy who drives the ball. And, in theory, it ought to help a Mariners offense that was the majors’ worst in 2011, scoring a league-low 556 runs and hitting a league-low .233.

“He’s swinging the bat great,” Chambliss said. “He’s hitting the ball all over the field with authority. And that’s what we want. His lifetime average is .326 — we want Ichiro to hit .326. Whether he does it from one stance or another stance is not a factor… His stance looks different, and everybody’s making a big deal over it. But he’s been a great hitter for a long time, and he’ll continue to be, because he knows how to get the bat on the ball.”

That’s the truth. He’s the best of his generation in putting the bat on the ball. Yet last year’s regression makes one wonder if that, too, has come to an end.

The greatest pure hitters in recent times have fared far better at the age of 37 than Ichiro’s .270 batting average last year. Wade Boggs batted .324 at age 37 with an on-base percentage of .412. Rod Carew hit .339 at 37, with an on-base percentage of .409. Tony Gwynn at 37 hit .372 and .409, and he didn’t dip below .321 before he retired at 41.

Those players’ late-career successes can be read either as hope for Ichiro’s 2012 or as more evidence that this year will mark the end.

And if it does? If this is the end of the road for Ichiro, we must take a step back and appreciate Ichiro for what he is: one of the finest hitters of our time, a man who ought to be a first-ballot Hall of Famer yet a player whose whole ultimately ended up being less than the sum of his parts.