We’ve seen legends finish their career in strange uniforms. Remember Joe Montana in a Kansas City Chiefs uniform? How about Michael Jordan in a Washington Wizards jersey? In baseball, we saw the great Willie Mays finish his career with the New York Mets.
So while it may be hard to picture, it’s not completely far fetched to envision Ichiro Suzuki in a Pittsburgh Pirates uniform next season.
This, of course, is with the caveat of it being for the right price.
The aging former superstar is always a tough free agent to gauge, as he’s clearly a shell of his former self, but is used to a certain salary and comes with the name recognition for which some teams are willing to pay.
Ichiro falls directly into this category. Coming off a five year, $90 million contract, Ichiro is undoubtedly up for a paycut. The question is how much.
Ichiro has remained healthy into his late 30′s, but his production has waned. After 10 straight seasons of over 200 hits and hitting over .300, Ichiro has slipped over the past two seasons and has hit just .272 and .283, respectively. Without a batting average well over .300, his lack of walks and virtually non-existent power leave him as a slightly below-average player.
So why would the Pirates want him? It takes a deeper look.
It’s no secret that Ichiro bounced back almost to his old self once he was traded to the New York Yankees at the trade deadline, hitting .322/.340/.454 in 67 games with his new team. Does that mean Ichiro is back or just that he was invigorated by a playoff run and put together a decent two-month stretch?
Safeco Field, Ichiro’s home stadium for more than a decade, is notorious for supressing offensive performance. In 2012, Ichiro hit just .216/.259/.292 in Seattle, below even his dimished performance. Getting him out of the greater northwest certainly played a factor in his resurgence after the trade, at least as much, if not more, than did playing meaningful baseball games.
From the Pirates end, Ichiro could be a good fit for the right price.
Because of his strong defense in right field, Ichiro is still a relatively productive player. Despite his offensive numbers in 2012, he was still a 2.6 win player, according to WAR. It wouldn’t take a huge leap in offensive numbers to get Ichiro back over the three-win mark.
Even at a 2.6 WAR, Ichiro would have been the Pirates fourth-most productive position player in 2012, and a slight rebound in offensive production – the kind he might experience getting out of Safeco Field – could easily vault him into second on the team (passing Pedro Alvarez at 2.9 and Neil Walker at 3.3). Essentially, Ichiro wouldn’t need to be the Ichiro of old to be one of the Pirates better players, just a version closer to what he did in New York this season.
Additionally, his presence in right field would allow the Pirates to keep Garrett Jones in at first base where he desperately belongs, and give the Pirates the top-of-the-order threat they’ve been missing in front of National League MVP candidate Andrew McCutchen.
For the Pirates, it will all come down to price. If Ichiro wants the type of salary that his legacy demands, then the Pirates will hang up the phone. But if Ichiro is simply looking for a place to play every day and continue his 3000 hits, the Pirates could be one of the few teams willing to offer him that opportunity.