Archive for Ichiro Suzuki
As recently as 15 days ago, the Yankees were planning to improve their defense by moving Curtis Granderson to left field with Brett Gardner taking over in center. Then J.A. Happ broke Granderson’s forearm with an errant pitch and the experiment was over. The team’s incumbent center fielder will be out until early-May, and the Yankees decided he wasn’t going to have enough time to learn the new position while on his rehab assignment. The priority will be getting Granderson’s bat back in the lineup as soon as possible, understandably.
With the outfield plan abandoned, Gardner will return to left field after filling in at center for the first few weeks of the campaign. A collection of cast-offs and kinda sorta prospects are battling it out for reserve roles with no candidate standing out from the pack, either on paper or on the field in Spring Training.
The 29-year-old Gardner is returning from a lost season, as an elbow injury and numerous setbacks (and eventually surgery) kept him on the shelf from early-April through late-September. The Yankees lacked speed without him and it was painfully obvious at times. Their outfield defense also took a major hit, although Raul Ibanez‘s effort was admirable. Admirable, but often ugly.
Replacing Ibanez and miscellaneous other fill-in left fielders with Gardner figures to be the biggest upgrade the club made in the offseason. Last year’s left fielders gave the team a power-heavy 92 OPS+ with no speed and poor defense, but that has been traded for Gardner’s on-base heavy career 93 OPS+ with high-end speed and defense. The Yankees will get fewer homers but much better all-around production. It’s a big upgrade even though he doesn’t fit the typical profile for the position.
The most important thing will be actually keeping Gardner on the field this year. He’s battled numerous injuries in recent years and nearly all of them can be considered flukes — fractured thumb on a stolen base (2009), wrist surgery following a hit-by-pitch (2010), elbow surgery following a sliding catch (2012) — but injuries are injuries and they’ve added up. Gardner will be an upgrade over Ibanez & Co. only if he stays healthy, which has been a challenge. Given the injuries to Granderson and Teixeira, it’s not a stretch to call him the team’s second most important player for the early-season.
This was an unanswered question even before Granderson got hurt — the Yankees were going to sort through the likes of Matt Diaz, Juan Rivera, Melky Mesa and others for the right-handed hitting outfielder’s role. Now those guys are competing for a starting job and as of today, there is no obvious favorite. Mesa has been solid in camp and so has Zoilo Almonte, but they are hardly guaranteed the job. Diaz and Rivera have been fine at the plate (considering it’s early-March) but less so in the field (particularly Rivera). Two of these guys — we shouldn’t forget Thomas Neal and Ronnie Mustelier either — are going to make the team and play regularly while Granderson is shelved. Ichiro Suzuki is always an option to fill-in at left as well.
Knocking on the Door
This ties in with the previous section, but the Yankees are expected to have an all-prospect outfield at Triple-A Scranton this summer. Mesa, Almonte, and Mustelier are the obvious candidates, but one or more could wind up making the big league team. It’s a very fluid situation at the moment. Regardless of what happens, a few of these outfield candidates will inevitably wind up in Northeast Pennsylvania and wait their turn in the Bronx.
The Top Prospect
Left field isn’t a true prospect position, it’s a last report position. Guys wind up there if they can’t cut it in center or right, or even third or first bases at times. With Tyler Austin projected as right fielder and both Mason Williams and Slade Heathcott looking like no-doubt center fielders, the team’s most obvious future left fielder is Ramon Flores. I aggressively ranked him fifth in my preseason top 30 prospects list. The soon-to-be 21-year-old hit .302/.370/.420 (126 wRC+) with six homers and 24 steals in 583 plate appearances for High-A Tampa this season, and he owns arguably the best plate discipline and approach in the organization. The Yankees added Flores to the 40-man roster after the season to protect him from the Rule 5 Draft and will start him at Double-A Trenton, but he’s not going to be a big league factor in 2013. The 2014 season could be another matter entirely.
The Deep Sleeper
We have to reach a little because there aren’t many prospects in the lower minors who project as long-term left fielders — kids that far down usually haven’t grown out of center field yet — but Nathan Mikolas makes sense year. Last summer’s third rounder didn’t hit a lick after signing for $400k, producing a .149/.295/.184 (62 wRC+) line with 35 strikeouts in 105 plate appearances (33.3 K%) for the rookie level Gulf Coast League affiliate. He didn’t make my preseason top 30 list. The 19-year-old has a “balanced left-handed swing and quality bat speed that give him the potential to become a plus hitter with average power” according to Baseball America (subs. req’d), who also notes “his athleticism, speed, arm and defensive ability are all below-average.” That’s where the whole left field thing comes into play. Mikolas will be held back in Extended Spring Training to open the season before re-joining one of the two GCL squads at midseason. If he shakes off the rough pro debut and starts showing off some of those hitting skills, he’ll quickly become an interesting prospect to follow.
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The Yankees dominated the late-1990s despite a revolving door in left field, but that position is much more important to the current team. New York’s best player at something — speed and defense (Gardner) or power (Granderson) — was going to hold down the position one way or the other, whether they went through with the position switch or not. Someone like Mesa or Rivera or Diaz will have to hold down the left field fort for at least 4-5 weeks while Granderson is on the shelf, which is not exactly ideal.
Last Friday, Buster Olney (Insider req’d) put together a post listing eight things that must go right for the Yankees in 2013. Most of them are obvious, like CC Sabathia having a strong season and Mariano Rivera returning to form, but I figured this was a good chance to piggyback on his idea and list some things I believe must go right for the club this year. I’m talking about big picture stuff, not just things that will help them contend in 2013.
Olney listed eight items, but I’m only going six deep. These aren’t listed in order of importance or anything like that, just in the order they came to me. They’re all important, but some are obviously more important than others.
The Yankees have three starting pitchers scheduled to become free agents after the season — Hiroki Kuroda, Andy Pettitte, and Phil Hughes — and the plan to get under the $189M luxury tax threshold in 2014 means they won’t be able to go crazy on the free agent market next winter. Getting something out of Michael Pineda in the second half would obviously be helpful, but it’ll be just as important for either Nova or Phelps to step forward and solidify themselves as long-term starters. Finding a cheap starter in the organization is a necessity to remain competitive once payroll is slashed.
2. Austin Romine must stay healthy.
Romine is likely to open the season in Triple-A while Chris Stewart and Frankie Cervelli make us want to claw our eyes out at the big league level, which is the best thing for his development. The 24-year-old has caught just 103 total games over the last two years due to persistent back problems, so he’s lost a lot of development time at a crucial age. Gary Sanchez is still several years away, so Romine is the organization’s best hope for a productive catcher in the near future. He needs to actually stay healthy for that to happen, so a full season in 2013 is imperative for his long-term future.
Rivera is a baseball playing robot and I expect him to have little trouble being productive following knee surgery. David Robertson is as good a setup man as you’ll find in the game, and the left-handed duo of Boone Logan and Clay Rapada is one of the better LOOGY tandems in baseball. The middle innings — fifth, sixth, and seventh, basically — fall on the shoulders of two pitchers who have combined to throw 50.1 innings over the last two seasons.
Joba, 27, struggled when he came off the DL at the trade deadline but finished the season very well, allowing just one earned run and one walk against 17 strikeouts in his final 13 innings of the season. It’s not a guarantee he’ll pitch well in 2013 of course, but it is encouraging. Aardsma made one late-season appearance and will be coming off two lost years due to elbow and hip surgery. The Yankees can get by if one of these two flames out and is unable to find his form from a few years ago, but getting nothing from both would create some major bullpen headaches.
4. Ichiro Suzuki must produce on an extreme, either good or bad.
The Yankees handed out just one multi-year contract this offseason, deciding the 39-year-old Ichiro was worthy of that kind of commitment. It’s my belief the deal was motivated by off-field factors — merchandise and ticket sales, advertising opportunities, increased popularity in Japan, etc. — and not so much his expected on-field performance. The late-season hot streak was nice and all, but Ichiro has managed just a .277/.308/.361 batting line in his last 1,384 plate appearances. Consider me skeptical.
So, what the club needs most from Suzuki next year is an extreme performance. He either needs to hit the cover off the ball like he did down the stretch and make me look like an idiot, or he needs to play so poorly the club will have no choice but to replace him. Splitting the middle and treading water won’t help, it just means he’ll remain in the lineup and be a question mark heading into 2014. Ichiro needs to erase doubt this summer, either by hitting so well they have to keep him or by hitting so poorly they have to dump him.
Every team needs their top prospects to stay healthy for obvious reasons, and the Yankees have three of their best minor leaguers coming off major injuries. Williams (shoulder) missed the second half following surgery while Campos (elbow) barely pitched in 2012. Heathcott (shoulder) missed the first half following his second surgery in as many offseasons and has yet to play more than 76 games in a single season. All three are among the team’s very best prospects and if the Yankees are serious about sticking to a budget, they’re going to need cheap production. That isn’t limited to plugging these guys into the roster down the line either, they need to stay healthy to boost potential trade value as well.
6. Alex Rodriguez must hit at least 13 homers.
Despite all the recent PED stuff, I’m working under the assumption A-Rod will rejoin the team around the All-Star break because that’s what the doctors (and the Yankees!) said following his latest hip surgery. If they’re able to void or otherwise shed his contract, great. But I’ll believe it when I see it.
Anyway, A-Rod is currently sitting on 647 career homers and is 13 away from triggering the first of five $6M homerun milestones in his contract. Triggering that bonus in 2013 — the next homer bonus would then be 54 homers away, a total even in-his-prime Alex would have trouble reaching in one year — gives the team another $6M to spend under the luxury tax threshold in 2014. It doesn’t sound like much, but $6M does go a long way. It’s enough to add an $18M player at the trade deadline. I don’t care anything about this latest PED stuff, I care about A-Rod reaching this first homer bonus this summer to give the team more flexibility next year.
At some point in the next few weeks, the Yankees will get around to acquiring a regular DH and a right-handed platoon bat to pair with their all-left-handed hitting outfield. They might even acquire a real starting catcher, but I wouldn’t hold my breath. The third base and right field holes have been addressed with the signings of Kevin Youkilis and Ichiro Suzuki, respectively, so the heavy lifting on the position player side of things is already complete.
Youkilis and Suzuki could not be any more different offensively, yet they both bring valuable skills. Youkilis doesn’t have the power he once did, but he’s still crazy patient and will provide tough at-bats each time up. Ichiro is a powerless speed-and- contact machine who puts the ball in play and dares the defense to convert it into an out before he reaches first base. Both guys are offensively valuable in their own way, and they both possess skills that allow them to hit in different batting order spots without looking out of place.
If the season started today, it’s fair to say that Robinson Cano, Mark Teixeira, and Curtis Granderson would occupy the three-four-five spots in the lineup in whatever order. The catcher presumably bats ninth. Assuming Derek Jeter‘s fractured ankle heals up in time for Opening Day, he’ll bat either first or second no questions asked. That leaves the Yankees with this basic lineup structure…
- Jeter or ?
- Jeter or ?
- Cano, Tex, or Grandy
- Cano, Tex, or Grandy
- Cano, Tex, or Grandy
- Not Russell Martin
One of those ?s will go to Brett Gardner, two others to Youkilis and Ichiro. The other goes to the DH, whoever that ends up being. Ichiro initially batted towards the bottom of the order after coming to New York at midseason, but he eventually hit his way into the two-spot behind Jeter. Youkilis, on the other hand, also hit second with the White Sox after they acquired him from the Red Sox. They both have number two hitter profiles, it just depends on whether your a traditionalist (Ichiro) or saber-slanted (Youkilis).
Before we move any further, let’s quickly look at some platoon data…
|wRC+ vs. LHP (2012)||wRC+ vs. RHP (2012)||wRC+ vs. LHP (2010-2012)||wRC+ vs. RHP (2010-2012)|
First off, ignore Gardner’s splits for this season because he barely played (only 37 plate appearances). Other than that, there are some rather drastic platoon splits here, particularly with Jeter and Youkilis. Those two destroy southpaws but aren’t nearly as productive against righties. Ichiro is worse off against lefties (especially of late) while Gardner shows almost no split. That info should be a consideration when Joe Girardi fills out his lineup card.
Given their mammoth production against southpaws, it seems pretty obvious that Jeter and Youkilis should bat one-two whenever there’s a left-hander on the mound. Assuming the Yankees sign a right-handed hitting outfielder to platoon with their left-handed outfield bats, that guy could hit sixth while either Gardner or (preferably) Ichiro sits. The DH goes seventh (that could be another platoon situation as well), the not-sitting outfielder eighth. That part is simple, but the lineup against righties isn’t as straight forward.
For one, Jeter’s platoon split is irrelevant. He’s going to bat first or second no matter what because he’s Derek frickin’ Jeter. Given Youkilis’ decline against same-side pitchers in recent years, he’s not the ideal two-hole hitter even though his production against righties is the best of the quartet’s over the last three seasons. Ichiro has the veteran clout over Gardner even though he may be a lesser hitter at the moment. Girardi could go with Jeter at leadoff and either Ichiro or Gardner at two against righties, or he could go Gardner or Ichiro at leadoff with Jeter at two to break up the lefties near the middle of the order.
Although Gardner is not the hitter for average that Ichiro is, he’s far better at getting on-base. He hasn’t had a sub-.345 OBP since his partial rookie season in 2008 while Ichiro hasn’t been above .310 (!) since 2010. The on-base split is even more drastic when we look at just right-handed pitchers, and you want men on-base for Cano & Co. It’s also worth noting that Gardner’s contact rate (90.6%) is actually better than Ichiro’s (90.1%) during the PitchFX era (2007-present). His strikeouts tend to be looking, as you know. Considering that Cano is likely to hit third and Girardi loves to split up his lefties, Gardner is the better choice to hit leadoff against righties even if he’s not the future Hall of Famer on a pricey two-year contract.
Everything kinda falls into place after that. Youkilis can hit sixth, the DH seventh, Ichiro eighth, and then the catcher ninth. Flipping Youkilis with DH is possible as well, though I’m working under the assumption that Granderson will bat fifth and the DH against righties will be a left-handed hitter. Gotta split dem lefties. You get speed and contact at the top and bottom of the batting order with the thunder in the middle against right-handers, but against lefties the thunder starts right at the top with this arrangement. Lineup things would change quite a bit if the ankle prevents Jeter from being ready for Opening Day, but that’s a not a problem worth worrying about yet.
To make room on the 40-man roster, the Yankees designated Jim Miller for assignment. They claimed the 30-year-old right-hander off waivers from the Athletics late last month. He pitched to a 2.59 ERA (4.74 FIP) in 48.2 innings for Oakland last year and owns a 2.42 ERA (4.42 FIP) with big strikeout (8.10 K/9 and 20.4 K%) and walk (5.12 BB/9 and 12.9 BB%) rates in 63.1 career big league innings.
Friday: It’s a two-year contract worth approximately $13M according to Heyman. Other teams, including the Phillies, reportedly offered two years and $14-15M, so Ichiro took a slight discount to return to New York. Heyman notes the team considered a one-year offer worth more than the $6.5M average annual value of this two-year contract, but apparently decided against it. I would have greatly preferred a one-year commitment given the 2014 payroll plan and Ichiro’s age. Sounds like the deal is still pending a physical.
Wednesday: The Yankees will re-sign Ichiro Suzuki according to Jon Heyman, Ken Rosenthal, and Craig Carton. The deal is not done yet because the two sides are still hammering out some details, but it’s only a matter of time before those are worked out. It sounds like there’s a chance he’ll wind up with a two-year contract, which would not jibe with the team’s “one-year contract or bust” mentality in advance of the 2014 payroll plan. The club will need to clear a 40-man roster spot once the deal is official.
Ichiro, 39, hit .322/.340/.454 (114 wRC+) in 240 plate appearances for the Yankees after being acquired from the Mariners at the trade deadline. He didn’t hit much in the first six weeks after the trade (.271/.297/.398 in 140 PA), but was arguably the team’s best hitter down the stretch in the final three weeks of the season (.394/.402/.532 in 100 PA). Ichiro hit just .268/.302/.342 in over 1,200 plate appearances from the start of 2011 through the trade, so the Yankees are clearly banking on him being revitalized by playing for a veteran-laden contender.
In order to facilitate the trade, Ichiro agreed to a set of conditions that included batting lower in the order and sitting against tough lefties. He earned a higher slot in the lineup and full-time at-bats later in the season, but it remains to be seen how the Yankees will use him going forward. Does he automatically hit first or second and play everyday based on the strength of his strong finish? Or will he essentially have to re-prove himself and start the year at the bottom of the order and on the bench against tough lefties? I’d prefer the latter, but that’s just me.
One thing the Yankees will clearly get with Ichiro is premium defense. He’ll slide back into his natural right field position and provide both range and a strong arm (even if it takes him forever to actually throw the ball), giving the team its best defensive outfield alignment in quite some time. Ichiro is also a true global superstar who transcends baseball. This financial impact is often overstated (as we learned during the Hideki Matsui years), but there are plenty of marketing and merchandising dollars to be made by having him on the roster. It’s also worth noting that Ichiro is only 394 hits away from 3,000 for his MLB career, though reaching that milestone within the next two years seems unlikely.
With Kevin Youkilis on board and Ichiro on his way back, the Yankees addressed two of their biggest position player needs this week. They still lack a starting-caliber catcher and need a DH, but one will be far easier to find than the other. It’s also imperative that they find a right-handed hitting outfielder since they now have three left-handed starters who had varying degrees of success against southpaws over the last three years — Ichiro (87 wRC+), Brett Gardner (103 wRC+), and Curtis Granderson (112 wRC+). Scott Hairston seems to the be the only viable free agent option for that role, but a trade is always possible.
Via Joel Sherman & Jon Heyman: The Yankees are positive they will re-sign Ichiro Suzuki, but it’s going to take a two-year contract because the Phillies offered him two years and $7M annually. George King reports that a few other clubs made two-year offers as well, and the two sides are talking about a $12-13M guarantee.
I didn’t love the idea of re-signing Ichiro to be the full-time right fielder to start with, but giving him two years would be pretty terrible in my opinion. That goes double when you consider a) they didn’t bother to make a two-year offer to Russell Martin (who is far more difficult to replace), and b) the plan to get under the $189M luxury tax threshold in 2014. A 39-year-old corner outfielder who’s posted a 93 wRC+ over the last three years (84 over the last two years) isn’t deserving of a multi-year contract.
4:45pm: Buster Olney says the two sides are moving closer to a deal. It’s expected to get done in a few days.
I wasn’t a huge fan of the Ichiro move at the trade deadline and he obviously proved me very wrong with his play down the stretch, but I hope those three awesome weeks didn’t convince the team he still has something left in the tank. Ichiro is a historically great player, but he’s been pretty bad these last two years (.277/.308/.361, 84 wRC+) and is unlikely to improve at age 39. One defense-first player in the outfield is enough for me, no need for a second.
5:00pm: According to Ken Rosenthal, the Yankees are “showing strong interest” in Ichiro and are likely to re-sign him to a one-year contract. They’re also looking into trades involving Curtis Granderson, which we heard last week.
10:00am: Via Jon Heyman: The Yankees are still talking to Ichiro Suzuki about a return next season while also hesitating to show interest in A.J. Pierzynski. They view the long-time White Sox backstop as just an average defender, and apparently catcher defense has become a top priority in the organization over the last few years. Non-updates really, though I suppose at some point the Yankees will have to stop sitting on their hands and make some moves on the position player side.
All 30 managers meet with the media for 30-ish minutes during the Winter Meetings, and Joe Girardi held his Q&A session late this afternoon. It’s pretty typical of Yankees people to speak a lot of words but not actually say much, and this was no different. I don’t have the audio to share because the quality is awful, but here’s a recap…
- Girardi confirmed what Brian Cashman said yesterday, that A-Rod didn’t say anything about his hip until being pinch-hit for in Game Three of the ALCS. “His hips weren’t firing right. It wasn’t pain but he felt it was not the explosiveness … I was somewhat worried because he’d been through it on his right hip and you’d think he’d know what the feeling was like. It wasn’t firing the way he thought.”
- A-Rod went for an MRI on his right hip after the game, and when it came back clean Girardi kept playing him. He did acknowledge Alex “did look different than he did before he got hurt.” The team doesn’t know exactly when the injury happened.
- On losing A-Rod for the first half of next year: “It’s big. You go into an offseason and you feel you have to address certain areas and all of a sudden you get a little bit of a surprise. It’s a pretty big hole to fill, and it may not necessarily be (filled) with one person.”
- “I’m not sure,” said the skipper when asked about any tension in his relationship with A-Rod. “It probably answers a lot of questions — he wasn’t the Alex we saw before the injury. Now we have a reason, possibly why.”
A little more than a week ago we heard Ichiro Suzuki loved being a Yankee so much that he was willing to wait for them to handle other offseason business before seeing if the club had interest in re-signing him. Apparently he’s grown tired of waiting. “At the beginning we talked a lot but since that time, zero,” said agent Tony Attanasio to George King when asked about talks with New York. “As far as we are concerned we don’t care what the Yankees do. We have had conversations with multiple clubs. If we see something we like he will go through with it.”
This sounds an awful lot like a negotiating ploy — sign me before I sign somewhere else! — than actual frustration and a change of heart to me. King says the Yankees aren’t opposed to re-signing Ichiro to play right field, but he makes it sound like they don’t love the idea. “[We'll] move from the defense to the offense and engage all the players we have interest in and have interest in us,” said Brian Cashman to Anthony McCarron in response to Attanasio’s comment, essentially acknowledging that right field and catcher have become the priority since the pitching has been addressed.