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Sports : Tuesday, October 31, 2000

Expect Mariners to bid for Japanese outfielder Suzuki
By Bob Finnigan
Seattle Times staff reporter

When Japanese outfielder Ichiro Suzuki is made available to major-league teams, which is anticipated as soon as this week, look for the Mariners to be very interested.

In fact, there is reason to believe they may be the most interested of several teams that will bid for Suzuki to the highest level of the ballclub.

Some observers believe Hiroshi Yamauchi, the Mariners' reclusive owner from Kyoto, Japan, may be at least as involved with the idea of obtaining Suzuki, one of Japan's most renowned position players, as he was last winter with the signing of Kazu Sasaki, Japan's premier closer.

Mariner officials cannot comment on the matter. Through Tim Hevly, the Seattle team's director of public relations, CEO Howard Lincoln said, "We cannot talk about Ichiro Suzuki until he is posted."

Yamauchi, who prefers to remain in the background, was so pleased with the Sasaki signing that he attended the Kyoto news conference when the Mariners announced the acquisition of Japan's record-setting closer. At one point, he told the pitcher he needed to lose weight.

Seattle's senior baseball officials also are thought to have studied the posting situation as minutely as possible, including how much they will have to bid to win the right to negotiate a contract with Suzuki, then how much they would have to pay to sign him, in the two-part process.

After seeing his stance and swing during their 1999 training camp, Seattle scouts estimated Suzuki, an outstanding defensive player, could bat between .270 and .280 in his first season, and with his on-base percentage and speed, might make a leadoff hitter.

Seattle is in the market this offseason for everything that Suzuki has to offer, especially a left-handed hitter.

The ties between Suzuki and Sasaki reportedly also might be significant to the Mariners, since the two are said to be close friends. One acquaintance said the two have spoken about playing together in Seattle and recalled, "When they spoke, Sasaki told Ichiro, `I will lead the way, and you follow when you can.' "

The New York Yankees, Los Angeles, Detroit, New York Mets, Boston and Anaheim - teams familiar with Japanese players - also are expected to seek the services of Suzuki, who hit .387 for the Orix Blue Wave this year to win his eighth batting title in nine years.

The hook is that interest must be expressed in the form of a sealed financial bid to the Orix club during a "posting period."

According to Jim Colborn, Seattle's scout for the Pacific Rim, "the posting period is for four days and starts when the Orix club notifies the Japanese commissioner's office that they are posting Suzuki for sale to a U.S. club. . . . Expect the posting period some time in early November."

With the bidding process, the ties between Sasaki and Suzuki seemingly will do the Mariners no more good than their formal working relationship with the Orix club, through which Suzuki and two pitchers attended the M's 1999 spring-training camp for several weeks.

Oly one minor Japanese player is thought to be have been sent to this country by means of the rules that were set up as a result of the Hideki Irabu fiasco.

"Irabu was not posted," Colborn said. "He was traded to San Diego by the Chiba team, which had a working relationship with the Padres. Of course, he didn't want to sign with them. He only wanted to play for the Yankees." New York traded two players and $3 million for Irabu.

Despite the upcoming posting process, there is no guarantee Suzuki will play in this country next season. If he doesn't like the team that wins the bidding or if he doesn't like the deal he is offered, he can stay with Orix and play one more year, then head to the U.S. as a 10-year free agent.