The Phillies and Giants, no shrinking violets with their checkbooks, both reportedly wanted Ichiro Suzuki, but the 39-year-old future Hall of Famer instead chose to remain in New York. Of course. The Yankees out-bid everyone.
Wait, what’s that? The Phillies offered two years and $14 million and the Giants were believed to have offered two years and $15 million, according to the New York Daily News, yet Ichiro signed for two years and $13 million, meaning he took a discount to sign with the Yankees.
My, how times have changed. As it is, despite the reduced rate, the Yankees had to extend beyond their self-imposed winter of frugality by offering a second year, potentially clashing with the overriding offseason objective of getting below 2014’s luxury tax threshold of $189 million.
What the Yankees received is their everyday rightfielder at a great price in this year’s open market, an above-average defender who has missed only one game in three years and whose offense was rejuvenated down the stretch after his trade from the Mariners. They also installed their third lefthanded-hitting outfielder in the starting lineup alongside Curtis Granderson and Brett Gardner. Add Robinson Cano and New York seems to be too lefty-heavy, but presumably a righthanded fourth outfielder will be its next target.
In his final year and a half with Seattle Ichiro batted just .268 with a .302 on-base percentage. He’s never walked much, but when you bat over .300 every year, you don’t need many walks to raise your OBP to desirable levels. But when his average dipped below .300 for the first time in his career in 2011 -- and well below, to .272 -- that became a problem.
In 67 games in New York, however, he batted .322 with a .340 OBP and hit five homers, which wasn’t quite the proliferation of power many expected when he began playing home games in front of Yankee Stadium’s short rightfield porch, but the rate of homering every 45.4 at bats with New York was his best since 2005.
With any player on the cusp of 40, especially one reliant on speed, there are concerns about performance deteriorating, but Ichiro’s late-season play quelled that criticism for now. Ichiro seems to take meticulous care of himself, which should help. And he remains an excellent fielder -- his 22.9 Ultimate Zone Rating since 2010 ranks seventh among all major league outfielders. That should save the club a few runs in rightfield, even though he won’t produce as many as predecessor Nick Swisher did. (Swisher, for comparison’s sake, had a 11.5 outfield UZR in the same time span, an 11 run difference that is roughly equivalent to one win.)
Also intriguing is that Ichiro is 394 hits shy of 3,000 and, though he had only 362 hits the past two seasons, it’s not impossible he could reach the historic milestone in pinstripes.
But the Yankees signed him as a rightfielder, not a milestone-reacher. Ichiro’s contract passes for a splurge by the franchise’s standards this offseason, but as a low-in-the-order contact hitter who plays good defense, the fit is a good one.-- By Joe Lemire