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People v. Ichiro Suzuki

New York Yankees left fielder Ichiro Suzuki reacts

New York Yankees left fielder Ichiro Suzuki reacts as teammates are introduced before ALDS Game 1 at Camden Yards. (Oct. 7, 2012) Credit: AP

In baseball free agency, the people are represented by two separate yet equally important groups. Fans who will do anything to keep their favorite players and fans who have no problem kicking any player to the curb.

This is Part 5 of our series looking at upcoming free agents for the Mets and Yankees and arguing for and against keeping them.

(Insert the "Law & Order" clang, clang here, just in case you didn't already catch the reference.)

The case:

Ichiro Suzuki is a 39-year-old outfielder for the Yankees. He played mostly right field with the Mariners this season before a July 23 trade sent him to New York, where he saw time in both left and right field. He also has experience in center. Suzuki spent his entire 12-season MLB career with the Mariners before the Yankees obtained him. He made $17 million in 2012 and hasn't made less than $12.5 million since 2004.

The facts:

A longtime star in Japan, Ichiro won the American League MVP and Rookie of the Year during his first season in MLB, 2001. That year, he hit .350 with 242 hits and 56 stolen bases. He was voted into the All-Star game and won a Gold Glove every year from 2001-2010 and also received MVP votes each of those years except 2005.

The prosecution:

The problem with Ichiro isn't that you don't know what you're getting – he had radically different batting splits before and after the trade that brought him to New York – it's that you do know what you're getting: a player in decline.

From 2009 through the first half of 2012, Ichiro's batting average and on-base percentage fell every year. He hit .272 with a .310 OBP in 2011 as a 37-year-old and was batting .261 with a .288 OBP with the Mariners in 2012.

Even after the trade to the Yankees, which briefly made him look like the Ichiro of old, his season numbers are puny: A .307 OBP and .697 OPS.

Brian Cashman was looking for lightning in a bottle with Ichiro. He was looking to get a once-great player out of a losing environment and hoped the jolt of a pennant race would wring whatever talent Ichiro had left out of him.

That happened. Ichiro played great for the Yankees. But the lightning has already struck.

Don't expect it to strike twice.

The defense:

Ichiro Suzuki was an aging player on a team of younger men in Seattle. A player accustomed to greatness, he had grown used to losing and low expectations.

Why wouldn't a player's skills erode in a situation like that?

With the Yankees, he was again counted on. There was again a demand to be great. And he responded.

In 67 games with the Yankees, Ichiro hit .322 with a .340 OBP and .454 slugging percentage. He stole 14 bases – Ichiro stole 15 bases in 28 MORE games with the Mariners in 2012. He hit five home runs –Ichiro hit four home runs during his 2012 in Seattle.

He posted a 16.4 UZR/150 in right field during 2012 and 9.1 UZR/150 in left field. UZR/150 is an advanced stat that measures a player's ability to get to balls hit in his zone.

Compare that right field number to another Yankees free agent: Nick Swisher. Swisher posted just a 3.4 UZR/150 in right field, still a positive, but a clearly subpar figure compared to Ichiro, even at his advanced age.

Suzuki gives the Yankees everything they're looking for. Defense. Speed in a lineup devoid of it. Contact in a lineup devoid of it.

We all know the Yankees can hit home runs. Ichiro is valuable because he brings a different and important skillset to the table.

Re-signing Ichiro? That could be the biggest home run of the 2013 season.

The verdict:

Nick Swisher's time with the Yankees is likely over. The rightfielder is looking for a long-term deal, and the suddenly cost-conscious Yankees don't seem to want to invest heavily in him.

That's why Ichiro presents the perfect opportunity. A player who will likely come with a short commitment because of his age, and one who will likely not garner an outrageous salary (due to age and recent performance).

When the Yankees traded for Ichiro in July it seemed like a novelty move or, at the least, a modest upgrade. Now it seems like a must to bring Ichiro back for the 2013 campaign.


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