With the addition of two high-profile outfielders this offseason, many thought the New York Yankees would trade veteran Ichiro Suzuki, who is signed through this year. Some think they still will, but they won’t, and they shouldn’t. Ichiro will be an important piece to what will be a vastly improved 2014 squad.
Those high-profile outfielders the Yankees got are Jacoby Ellsbury and Carlos Beltran. Ellsbury should start in center, Beltran in right, and homegrown Yankee Brett Gardner rounding out the field in left.
Beltran should start in right – meaning yes, it’s an obvious choice – but let’s not act like the 36 year old is a spry spring chicken. What he brings to the table is offensive firepower. The switch-hitter bat .296/.339/.491 with 24 home runs and 84 RBI last year and made his eighth All-Star team. He is also a postseason powerhouse, a particularly attractive quality for the Yankees. In 51 postseason games, Beltran has hit .333 with 16 home runs and 40 RBI. Not bad.
The Yankees bought him for his offense, that’s a fact. Liability is a strong word to use to describe Beltran defensively, but he’s certainly average at best. Last season, he was rated at minus-six runs saved in right field. Yankee Stadium provides a smaller coverage area for Beltran, which will help, but having a great defensive outfielder on the bench will help too.
Ichiro, on the other hand, brings some skills to the right field position that Beltran does not – speed for one, and impeccable defense for another. Even at 40 years old, dude still has wheels; he can absolutely be brought in as a late game defensive replacement or pinch runner.
Something else Ichiro can do, in case you hadn’t heard, is hit. Sure, his average slid a little last year, but when you’re talking about one of the greatest hitters of all time, the bar is set a little higher. Yankee fans of all people should understand that concept.
A career .319 hitter, Ichiro bat .283 and .262 respectively in the last two seasons. This is an admitted drop from his usual .300+ performances, but let’s face it, last year was tough for everyone in New York. As a team, the Yankees hit .242, good for 24th in MLB. Ichiro got on base at a decent .297 clip and stole 20 bases. For an everyday guy, it’s not great. It’s not bad, mind you, but it’s not great. But for a late-game pinch runner/hitter/defensive replacement? It’s absolutely stellar. Also keep in mind that while Beltran doesn’t have a significant history of injury, he is 36 years old. It behooves the Yankees to have a good backup plan in case something should happen to their starting right-fielder.
The only real question is, would Ichiro accept such a role? This is a guy with more than 4,000 career hits as a professional in both the United States and Japan who has never even sniffed a ring. The Seattle Mariners went to the playoffs just once in his 11+ year career there, and that was in 2001, his first season. He is a humble team player and my hunch is that he knows the Yankees provide him his best chance for a ring this year.
Besides all that, Ichiro is owed $6.5 million in 2014. Even though I think he provides a unique advantage for the Yankees’ particular outfield situation, not a lot of teams are in the market for a 40-year-old outfielder owed $6.5 million.
Ichiro will likely stay in New York, and he should. He just might end up being a more important piece of the World Series puzzle than anyone currently anticipates.