Archive for Ichiro Suzuki
Eleven questions and eleven one-paragraph answers this week. You can send us mailbag questions or anything else using the Submit A Tip box in the sidebar.
Dan asks: Doesn’t it make a lot of sense for the Yankees to go after Francisco Rodriguez? He’d provide a power arm for the bullpen (which clearly still needs one or two more pieces). He has closer experience if Robertson doesn’t work out.
Rodriguez, 32, didn’t sign until the middle of April last year, remember. He did pitch better in 2013 (2.70 ERA and 3.65 FIP) than he did in 2012 (4.38 ERA and 3.83 FIP), so maybe that means he won’t have to wait as long to find a new team this offseason. K-Rod still misses plenty of bats (10.41 K/9 and 28.0 K% in 2013) but he’s also become way more fly ball (only 36.4% grounders) and homer (1.35 HR/9 and 15.2% HR/FB) prone in recent years as he’s lost velocity. He’s not the elite, shutdown reliever he was as recently as 2011 anymore, but Rodriguez is still a solid bullpen arm who can help the Yankees. They might be wary of his off-field issues though.
David asks: Now that the Yankees have signed Masahiro Tanaka, are they more free to trade Ichiro Suzuki? I thought they might hold onto Ichiro long enough for him to help with the sales pitch, but they really need an OF who can hit the ball out of the park now and then. On the days Beltran plays the OF and Jeter plays SS, would Ichiro be the current option at DH?
I don’t think Ichiro was ever part of the sales pitch to Tanaka — if we was, we haven’t heard anything about it — and they were always free to trade him. It just seems like there are no takers, even if the Yankees eat some salary. The bench right now looks really awful (Frankie Cervelli, Brendan Ryan, Ichiro … Scott Sizemore?) with no one who can be used as a pinch-hitter or anything like that. Beltran and Alfonso Soriano figure to split DH and right field, but on the days one of them sits, it’ll be Ichiro who plays. That’s not ideal. I’d like to see an actually hitter on the bench, someone who can run into a fastball or at least get on-base at a decent clip.
Sam asks: We see Robinson Cano get 10/240, Clayton Kershaw land 7/217, and Tanaka (without an MLB pitch to his name) get 7/155. Is there a point, in your opinion, where we hit a ceiling of what an MLB player is being paid, or are we looking at $500+ million dollar contracts down the road?
This isn’t an MLB only thing, though MLB salaries have inflated more rapidly than the rest of the working population’s. It’s only a matter of time before we get a $500M+ contract and I bet it’ll happen sooner than we expect, maybe within the next 20 years or so. Heck, there will be a point where the average annual salary in the U.S. is $500M, but that won’t happen in our lifetimes. As long as the union stands its ground and does not allow a salary cap, MLB salaries are only going to continue going up. It’s the way of the world.
Kevin asks: Do you think last year’s three first round draft picks and the planned spending frenzy in international free agency can lead to the Yankees’ farm system being decent and (dare I say it) maybe even good? I know they won’t have a first round pick this season, but it’s not like you are completely missing out on talent if your starting your draft in the second round.
To steal a phrase from Hubie Brown, there is a lot of upside potential in the Yankees’ farm system this year. They’re adding what amounts to four first round talents in Eric Jagielo, Aaron Judge, Ian Clarkin, and Ty Hensley, who is due to return from his hip(s) surgery. Manny Banuelos will also return from Tommy John surgery to give the system a boost. International guys like Abi Avelino and Luis Severino will have a chance to improve on last year’s success as well. Just based on the guys already in the system, there’s a lot of potential for a big step forward in 2014. Every team has a handful of guys who could really awesome if they stay healthy and take a step forward and yadda yadda yadda, but I feel like the Yankees have more than the average team.
Dan asks: Will the failure to achieve $189m put away all talk of getting under for the foreseeable future? Or every offseason from now on will the Yankees consider $189m as a possible offseason strategy to evaluate each year?
Given all the long-term commitments they handed out this winter and the fact that Alex Rodriguez‘s salary will be back on the books next year, I don’t see how the Yankees could get under the luxury tax threshold in the future. My real quick math already has the 2015 payroll at $152.1M for only eight (!) players, and that’s with two above-average producers (David Robertson and Brett Gardner) heading for free agency and needing to be either re-signed or replaced. The Collective Bargaining Agreement expires after the 2016 season and I have to think the luxury tax threshold will rise at that point. There’s too much money in the game to keep it at $189M; they might have to bump it up to $200M or even $210M.
Uke asks: Now that the Yankees have gone over the $189 million goal, why don’t they offer Ervin Santana and Ubaldo Jimenez one-year contracts with the stipulation that they won’t make a qualifying offer next year?
The Collective Bargaining Agreement says you can’t sign a player and promise to not make the qualifying offer in the future, though I’m not sure how they’d go about enforcing that. I’d love to see Ubaldo fall into their laps in March, similar to what happened with Kyle Lohse last year, but I’m counting on it. I wouldn’t be surprised if he signed this weekend. Adding another starter, even someone like Bronson Arroyo, to knock the internal guys down a peg would be awesome in my book, but the infield and bullpen have to be the priorities right now.
Dustin asks: Should the Yankees put a claim on Brayan Villarreal if he falls to them? He walks way too many, but his strikeout propensity would do well in low-to mid-leverage innings, kind of like how Joba Chamberlain was used of late.
The Red Sox designated the 26-year-old Villarreal for assignment a few days ago after an ugly season in which he walked nine and struck out six while allowing ten runs in 4.1 big league innings. His 2.67 ERA (3.17 FIP) in 42.1 minor league innings looks great, but he also walked 30 batters (6.4 BB/9 and 16.5 BB%). Villarreal had a strong 2012 season with the Tigers (2.63 ERA and 2.98 FIP in 54.2 innings) but he’s a classic hard-thrower who has no idea where the ball is going. Very similar to Brian Bruney when the Yankees signed him. All you can do with a guy like that is hope he irons out his command for a long stretch of the season. The Bombers need bullpen help but they don’t have room for Villarreal on the 40-man roster and I’m not sure if he’s worth clearing a spot for.
Charley asks: Do you think now that the Yankees got Tanaka that Vidal Nuno has a leg up on the fifth starter spot since he is a lefty? Joe Girardy typically likes to split his lefty/righty pitchers and now they have only one lefty in CC Sabathia.
In a perfect world, the Yankees would have more than one left-handed starter because of Yankee Stadium’s short right field porch and the various power lefty bats in the division (David Ortiz and Chris Davis, primarily). I don’t think it’s a requirement though. At this point the team needs to just assemble the best pitching staff it can regardless of handedness. If Nuno wins the fifth starter’s spot in camp, great. If it’s David Phelps or Adam Warren, well that’s okay too. To answer the question, no, I don’t think Nuno’s handedness gives him a leg up on the competition. I think they’ll give the job to whoever impresses the most.
Paul asks: Let’s play glass-half-full for a moment and assume that Michael Pineda is healthy and producing in ST and gets the #5 rotation slot. Phelps would almost certainly go to the BP. What about Warren and the other #5 competitors? Are they too similar in the roles they would fill to go with him?
I think both Phelps and Warren would go to the bullpen in that case, one as the long man and one as a more traditional short reliever. Warren was the long man all last year while Phelps did the short relief thing in September after returning from his forearm injury. It’s possible one would go to Triple-A to remain stretched out as the sixth starter, but I think both would wind up working in relief given the state of the bullpen. Using both as multi-inning middle relievers (rather than a long man and a one-inning guy) would be pretty neat. It would obviously be awesome if Pineda showed enough to win a rotation spot in camp. That would really create some roster options for the Yankees.
Tucker asks: In the past with these ST starter competitions, we’ve seen the Yankees seemingly give one candidate a leg-up. I think this year we could see that happening with Pineda. Do you agree, or do you think that a different starter fits that role better?
The Yankees have definitely held some rigged Spring Training competitions over the years, most notably the fifth starter competition in 2010 (Phil Hughes over Joba) and last year’s catching competition (Chris Stewart over everyone). If it does happen with the fifth starter’s spot this year, I think Phelps would be the guy with the advantage given the last two years. That’s just a hunch though. Pineda is coming off two lost years and might need more time in Triple-A to shake the rust off. As I mentioned before, I honestly think this competition will be more legitimate — whoever pitches the best in camp will win it. Of course, Spring Training competitions don’t end in Spring Training. If the fifth starter doesn’t perform well early on, someone else will take his spot. The team has enough candidates that they won’t have to live with a poor performing fifth starter for more than a few starts.
Kyle asks: Do you see the Yankees re-signing Brian Cashman or will they let someone else take the role as GM, like Billy Eppler?
I wrote this post about the future of the front office two years ago, after Eppler was officially named the assistant GM. It seemed like the Yankees were setting up a line of succession — Eppler spends three years learning the ropes as the assistant before taking over as GM when Cashman’s deal was up. Cashman would presumably be moved to some kind of president or director or chairman or whatever role. The Indians (Mark Shapiro and Chris Antonetti) and White Sox (Kenny Williams and Rick Hahn) have both made similar moves in recent years. I still expect something like that to happen. Ownership clearly loves Cashman but this will be his 16th year as GM. Things can get pretty stale after that much time and a new voice could do wonders for the organization (it could also do a lot of damage, remember). Moving Cashman into a different role and making Eppler the GM seems very possible and I do think that is what will happen.
The Yankees need bullpen help and they have some extra outfielders lying around, ergo trading an outfielder for a reliever seems like an obvious move to make. It’s not that easy though. It takes two teams to tango and the outfielders worth trading aren’t all that appealing. Finding a trade match won’t be easy. Then again, Ken Rosenthal threw this out there late Saturday night:
Don’t be surprised if the Diamondbacks trade right-hander J.J. Putz following their addition of former White Sox closer Addison Reed. Putz is signed for $7 million in 2014, and the D-backs most likely would be required to accept a comparable salary in return.
Yankees outfielder Ichiro Suzuki, earning $6.5 million, could be one possibility, though it is not known whether Yankees ownership would part with Suzuki or how he would adjust to a backup role.
First things first: that’s not really a rumor. It looks like speculation more than anything. Of course, it also seemed like speculation when Rosenthal said the Phillies could trade Cliff Lee to the Mariners for prospects and then acquire Roy Halladay from the Blue Jays a few years ago, so who knows. (The original Lee-Halladay story seems to be gone, sadly.) The man is well-connected and his speculation tends to be informed speculation, so maybe there are some legs to an Ichiro-Putz swap.
The Diamondbacks overhauled their roster this offseason and part of that overhaul included trading for Reed, who figures to take over as closer. Putz was shaky early last season before landing on the DL for two months with an elbow problem in early-May. He never did get his closer’s job back, instead spending the rest of the year in a setup role. Putz, who will turn 37 next month, had a 2.36 ERA (3.83 FIP) in 34.1 innings in 2013. From 2010-2012, he posted a 2.60 ERA (2.48 FIP) in 166.1 innings. He was excellent.
Injuries, specifically elbow injuries, have been a big problem for Putz over the years and therein lies the risk. He’s had two elbow surgeries (nerve problem in 2008 and bone chips in 2009) and dealt with various strains and inflammation (2007, 2009, 2011, 2013) throughout his career, so missing time last summer was not exactly a surprise. He’s an even bigger risk now that’s approaching 40, but, when he’s healthy, Putz is pretty good. Certainly better than most of the guys the Yankees currently have lined up for the bullpen.
One potential obstacle standing in the way of an Ichiro-Putz trade is Arizona’s outfield depth. They aren’t the only team with a logjam. The D’Backs are currently slated to go into the season with Mark Trumbo in left, A.J. Pollock in center, and Cody Ross in right with Gerardo Parra the heavily used fourth outfielder. Tony Campana, who is very similar to Ichiro at this point, is the fifth outfielder. Maybe they prefer Ichiro’s experience and name value to whatever Campana brings to the table.
Ichiro’s role on the Yankees right now is basically pinch-runner and defensive replacement. Not exactly hard to replace. They’ve been shopping him in hopes of saving some money but trading him for a useful (albeit risky) bullpen arm like Putz would be even better. Their contract situations are similar — they’re owed almost identical salaries in 2014 as Rosenthal pointed out, and both guys will become free agents next winter — and the Yankees would take a step towards addressing a pressing need. I don’t really care how the deal would help the D’Backs, to be honest. All I know is if they’re open to dealing Putz for Ichiro, the Yankees should jump all over it.
Mason asks: Why is Ichiro Suzuki an auto-cut? Wouldn’t that be Vernon Wells or is it both? I would rather cut Wells and use Ichiro as the 4th OF. Maybe I’m being a bit too sentimental but I wouldn’t want to do that to Ichiro even if he is below league average in multiple ways.
I don’t think Ichiro is an auto-cut at this point, but I wouldn’t call his roster spot safe either. The Yankees are reportedly shopping him and it’s not a bad idea to see if they can unload part of his contract. It’s not like he’s irreplaceable. Someone like Zoilo Almonte could do the same job for a fraction of the cost.
I definitely agree Wells is first in line to get the axe should the Yankees need a 40-man roster spot, which they inevitably will the next few weeks. Brian Roberts and Matt Thornton still need to be added to the roster, so that’s two spots right there. Wells brings pretty much nothing to the table (it’s remarkable, really) and he absolutely should go first.
As for Ichiro, his role right now is something of a glorified fifth outfielder. He is fifth on the outfield depth chart but because Carlos Beltran and Alfonso Soriano will split right field and DH duties, Ichiro will be the first outfielder off the bench in most games. His primary job will be pinch-running and late-inning defense in right (regardless of whether Beltran or Soriano starts in the field).
The various projection systems crush Ichiro and expect him to be replacement level-ish next year, which is not unfair. He hasn’t hit at all these last three seasons and his defense slipped last year, particularly in the second half. Ichiro started only ten of the team’s final 17 games in 2013 and Joe Girardi was right to marginalize him. His name value far, far exceeds his on-field value at this point.
The Yankees won so much in the late-1990s thanks in part to their veteran-laden bench, which was filled with former stars like Tim Raines and Darryl Strawberry. Those guys accepted reduced roles and thrived in limited time. I don’t know if Ichiro can be that kind of player next year — he doesn’t have Stawberry’s power or either guy’s on-base ability — but that’s the best case scenario. For now, he’s a bench player the team should look to unload if possible.
It’s hard to believe that after everything that happened last week, today is the first day of the Winter Meetings in Orlando. These next three days — the fourth day of the Winter Meetings is always slow because teams head home around noon-ish — might be a little slower than usual only because some of the very top free agents are always off the board. I still expect this week to be pretty busy, with lots of rumors and trades and signings with whatnot.
Robinson Cano is leaving for the Mariners and Curtis Granderson is going across town to the Mets, but the Yankees have already inked Jacoby Ellsbury (seven years, $153M), Brian McCann (five years, $85M), Carlos Beltran (three years, $45M), Hiroki Kuroda (one year, $16M), and Kelly Johnson (one year, $3M). They still need another infielder to help replace Cano as well as another starting pitcher — Yu Darvish was posted during the 2011 Winter Meetings, so hopefully we get some clarification about Masahiro Tanaka this week — and some bullpen help. General depth is always something to monitor as well.
Brian Cashman is not expected to arrive in Orlando until this afternoon according to Andy McCullough, but that’s pretty typical. A few clubs and executives are already there but most trickle in throughout Monday. We’re going to keep track of any Yankees-related news right here throughout the day, so make sure you check back often. All of the timestamps are ET.
- 10:58pm: The Yankees have not changed their stance on Gardner. They will listen to offers but aren’t overly motivated to trade him. [Jack Curry]
- 7:47pm: The asking price for Gardner is “through (the) roof” and the Giants don’t have much interest in Ichiro Suzuki. Not surprised on either count. [John Shea]
- 6:58pm: The Giants are intrigued by Gardner. One person involved in talks called a trade “not likely, but not impossible.” [Sherman]
- 6:38pm: The most likely return for Gardner would be a number four starter, according to rival executives. A number three would be a strong return. Just keep him in that case. [McCullough]
- 5:05pm: The Yankees are looking for relievers and they have stayed in contact with Boone Logan. He had a bone spur removed from his elbow after the season and is expected to start throwing this month. [McCullough]
- 5:01pm: Cuban shortstop Aledmys Diaz will be eligible to sign on February 19th after being suspended for falsifying his age. The Yankees had a “large presence” at the 23-year-old’s recent showcase events in Mexico. Some teams like him more as a second baseman. [Jeff Passan]
- 11:10am: The Yankees have not expressed interest in Johan Santana. He’s coming off his second torn shoulder capsule and the first is usually the kiss of death. [McCullough]
- 11:03am: Thinking about Roy Halladay? Forget it. He’s retiring. Halladay will sign a one-day contract with the Blue Jays and make the official announcement later today. [Jon Heyman]
- The Yankees are one of the teams with interest in trading for Cubs right-hander Jeff Samardzija. I wrote about him around the trade deadline. [Bruce Levine]
- 9:00am: “That’s the last thing I’m worried about,” said Cashman when asked about acquiring a closer. He acknowledged they’re seeking another starter and bullpen help in general. “Listen, we have enough voids that you don’t have to prioritize any of it. You hope to run into something sooner than later that makes you better.” [Dan Martin]
- The Yankees did look into a reunion with Raul Ibanez but he isn’t much of a fit now. The outfield is crowded and there’s no room for another DH-type. Ibanez is expected to sign this week. [Joel Sherman]
- The Yankees still have interest in Omar Infante as a Cano replacement. They are not talking to Mark Ellis, however. [Ken Rosenthal]
Reminder: Your trade proposal sucks.
Via Chad Jennings: The Yankees are shopping spare outfielder Ichiro Suzuki in trade talks. Nothing is imminent and there are indications other clubs value him as nothing more than a fourth outfielder. His trade value is minimum at this point of his career.
Ichiro, 40, hit .262/.297/.342 (71 wRC+) with seven homers and 20 stolen bases in 555 plate appearances this past season, setting several career worsts. He is a man without a role — unless the Yankees trade Brett Gardner, which is always a possibility — thanks to recent Jacoby Ellsbury and Carlos Beltran pickups. If the team can move him for some salary relief, even $2-3M, it’ll be a win. I mentioned to Moshe the other day that I was weirdly confident the Yankees would be able to trade Ichiro (Phillies? Giants?) and he basically laughed at me, just to give you someone else’s perspective.
The 2013 season is over and now it’s time to review all aspects of the year that was, continuing today with a big name outfielder who provided small name production.
It doesn’t happen often, but every once in a while a move will work out exactly the way I expected it to work out. The Ichiro Suzuki re-signing was one of those moves. It was a terrible signing at the time (two years!!!) and it looks just as terrible today. Those three great weeks at the end of last season were a total mirage — the Magic of the Pinstripes™ failed Ichiro miserably in 2013. He looked old and washed up because, well, he’s old and washed up. Here is his 2013 season in three acts:
Act One: The Terrible Start
It’s hard to believe Ichiro was asked to be the everyday right fielder at the outset of the season. Yet there he was, starting ten of the team’s first 13 games and playing against both righties and lefties. He singled to center field in his second at-bat of the season and then went hitless in his next 14 at-bats. Ichiro went 8-for-42 with one extra-base hit (a homer) in the team’s first 14 games, good for a .190/.255/.262 batting line. The Yankees were winning and an early season slump is usually nothing to worry about, so Suzuki got a free pass because hey, he’s Ichiro Suzuki and he’ll figure it out.
Act Two: The Inevitable Hot Streak
Naturally, Ichiro figured it out and went on a two-and-a-half month hot streak. From April 19th through July 4th, a span of 70 team games, he hit .296/.339/.408 with four homers and 12 stolen bases in 255 plate appearances. It wasn’t exactly Ichiro circa 2004 or even Ichiro circa September 2012, but it was good enough. The highlight of the hot streak was a walk-off solo homer against Tanner Scheppers and the Rangers, one of four games in which New York swatted four of more homers in 2013.
That 70-game hot streak featured 18 multi-hit games and only 26 strikeouts, raising his season batting line to .280/.318/.387. Ichiro was piling up base hits and making noise on the bases, plus he was still playing solid defense. He was contributing both at the plate and in the field, exactly what the injury-riddled Yankees needed. The early slump was forgotten and any concern that he was, uh, old and washed up disappeared for a little while. A streak like this was inevitable at some point, I felt.
Act Three: The Awful Finish
Things very quickly went south for Ichiro. Following the (arbitrarily cut-off) hot streak, he went into a 6-for-27 (.222) and 17-for-73 (.233) slide. Ichiro hit .239/.272/.290 with two homers and eight steals in his final 253 plate appearances and the team’s final 76 games of the season. Ichiro started only 57 of those 76 games because he hit his way out of the lineup, first losing time to Zoilo Almonte and then to Curtis Granderson before Brett Gardner got hurt late in the year. He did record his 4,000th professional hit on August 21st, which was pretty cool:
Ichiro finished the season at .262/.297/.342 (71 wRC+) with seven homers and 20 steals (in 24 attempts) in 555 plate appearances. He set new career worsts in AVG, OBP, wRC+, stolen bases, and plate appearances. It was, by a not small margin, the worst offensive season of his career. Ichiro did play strong right field defense despite developing what appeared to be a Bobby Abreu-esque fear of the wall late in the season. Maybe he was hiding an injury and didn’t want to aggravate it by running into the wall, who knows. Maybe that explains the noodle bat as well, but I wouldn’t get my hopes up.
* * *
Depending on your preference, Ichiro was either a 1.1-win player (fWAR) or a 1.4-win player (bWAR) in 2013, obviously on the strength of his defense. That’s … okay, I guess. It’s basically the bare minimum for a starting player. Suzuki’s season, these three acts, is best shown in graph form:
Down, then up (teetering on good!), then really down.
Unfortunately, we’re all going to get a look at Act Four in 2014. Ownership signed Ichiro to a two-year contract (!!!) and pending the team’s offseason moves, he is currently slated to open next season as the regular-ish right fielder. His skillset at this point is that of a fourth or fifth outfielder: some average, no on-base skills, no power, good base-running, good defense. The kind of guy you can find for maybe a million bucks in the offseason. Instead, Ichiro and his unparallelled marketability will earn $6.25M in 2014 and again provide below-average production. Old, overpaid, and on the decline. The Yankees way.
Brian Cashman held his annual end-of-season press conference on Tuesday afternoon and, unsurprisingly, there were no announcements made. Not even a minor one. He fielded questions for about an hour and in typical YankeeSpeak, the GM said a lot of words that had little substance. The team’s higher-ups have a knack for dodging questions and giving vague answers while talking a whole bunch. Anyway, let’s recap the presser:
On Joe Girardi
- Cashman confirmed he met with Girardi “for a while” yesterday and will meet with agent Steve Mandell tomorrow to continue talks. “After tomorrow, I think I’ll get a real good feel for where we’re at,” he said. “I think he likes it here. We’re going to give [Girardi] a real good reason to stay.”
- “His effort and his efforts in pre-game preparation for each series and how he runs Major League Spring Training … he’s been consistently tremendously at it,” said the GM while also crediting Girardi for working with such a poor roster this season. “[His] job as a manager is to make sure these guys compete on a daily basis … I thought he did a great job, him and his staff.”
- Cashman would not comment when asked if the Cubs (or any other team, for that matter) had contacted the team to ask for permission to speak to Girardi. His contract expires November 1st.
- Cashman closed the press conference with a preemptive “no comment” about how things go (went?) with Mandell tomorrow. He told the media not to bother to reach out for an update because he won’t give one. It was kinda funny.
The Yankees are on their last legs. Baseball Prospectus gives them a 2.4% chance to make the postseason following last night’s shutout loss and even that feels high. The non-Andy Pettitte starters are struggling, the bullpen is a disaster, and the offense has dried up since Brett Gardner got hurt. Obviously Gardner’s absence is not the only reason the team is struggling to score runs, but taking a .273/.344/.416 (107 wRC+) hitter out of the lineup sure does hurt. No doubt about it.
Because of the injuries to Gardner and Derek Jeter — as well as Alex Rodriguez‘s barking calf and hamstring — there is only so much Joe Girardi can do to shake up his lineup going forward. Brendan Ryan (!) has already replaced Eduardo Nunez at short and Mark Reynolds has taken over at the hot corner full-time despite his defensive deficiencies. There are still two more moves that can be made though, and it has more to do with getting unproductive bats out of the lineup than having slam dunk upgrades waiting in the wings.
Since Gardner got hurt, replacement Ichiro Suzuki has gone 2-for-15 while hitting exactly four balls out of the infield on the fly. He came off the bench to get all the at-bats that would have gone to Gardner had he not gotten hurt. Chris Stewart, meanwhile, has gone 3-for-38 (!) in the team’s last 24 games. To make matters worse, both guys have started to slip defensively either due to fatigue or old age or whatever. Ichiro‘s been misplaying balls in right field while Stewart is a passed ball machine. They’re killing the team.
Girardi doesn’t have a ton of alternatives at his disposal despite September call-ups, but he could pull the plug on the veterans and run the kids out there. Zoilo Almonte recently returned from his ankle injury and J.R. Murphy was called up to serve as the third catcher a few weeks ago. Austin Romine would be another option behind the plate had he not been concussed last week. Almonte and Murphy aren’t exactly the next Mike Trout and Buster Posey, but the offensive bar in right field and behind the plate has been set so low that it’s worth giving the kids the try.
No team — extra-especially the Yankees — likes to hand the keys to a playoff race over to a bunch of prospects late in September, but the alternative is two very unproductive veterans. Ichiro and Stewart have stunk all year, this is not anything new, but their recent slumps have been much more pronounced and ill-timed. Almonte had some success during his brief cup of coffee earlier this year and at the very least put together some quality at-bats while Murphy … well he had a real nice year split between Double-A and Triple-A. What more can you say about him? Not much. Change for the sake of change is usually foolhardy, but I think Ichiro and Stewart have forced the issue. Enough is enough.
These last eleven games will tell us nothing about whether Almonte and/or Murphy can help the team next year. Nothing at all. There just isn’t enough time. What they can do is potentially help the team right now. Again, the bar in right field and behind the plate has been set so very low that it won’t take much for them to be upgrades. Could they be downgrades? Oh sure, it’s very possible. But the Yankees aren’t going to postseason if Ichiro and Stewart continue to play everyday. Replacing them with Almonte and Murphy could possibly improve their already slim chances. It’s worth a shot.
No, it’s not the literal midway point of the season, but we’re going to use the four-day All-Star break to review the Yankees’ performance to date. We’re handing out letter grades, A through F. We’ve already tackled the A’s and the B’s, now it’s time for the C’s.
I guess that, by definition, a grade C is average, right? It is right in the middle of the A through F scale, but I’m not sure that really applies to baseball though. For every A there are a hundred F’s and for every B there are a couple dozen D’s. Grade C is closer to the top than the bottom, I think, slightly better than average.
Anyway, the Yankees sit in fourth place and three games out of a playoff spot at the All-Star break because they’ve gotten a lot of mediocre performances and very few really good ones. Some guys have wound up C’s because they’re disappointments, but others are here because they’re doing pretty much exactly what’s expected. Heck, some are even here because they’ve been surprisingly good. I’m trying to keep this objective and not look at performance vs. expectations, however. Easier said than done, obviously.
Enough rambling, onto the grade C’s.
It happens almost every year. A known but not necessarily highly-touted young arm comes up from the farm system and impresses in relief for the Yankees. Claiborne has followed in the footsteps of David Phelps (2012) and Hector Noesi (2011) by posting a 2.43 ERA and 3.03 FIP in 29.2 innings. He was excellent early on but has faltered a bit of late, which is not atypical of young relievers. Claiborne stepped in when Joba Chamberlain hit the DL and didn’t just temporarily fill the hole, he upgraded the bullpen.
This has been a tale of two seasons for Nova, who owns a very good 3.63 ERA and an excellent 3.00 FIP in 52 overall innings. He was awful before going down with a triceps issue (6.48 ERA and 3.11 FIP in 16.2 innings), good in two brief relief appearances after getting healthy (one run in six innings), and outstanding since coming back up from the minors (2.45 ERA and 2.65 FIP in 29.1 innings). Which Nova will the Yankees get going forward? Who knows. He’s gone from excellent to awful and back again so many times in the last two years. Right now he has a rotation spot thanks to the Phelps’ injury and will get an opportunity to show this latest version is the real Ivan Nova.
Emotions are a tricky thing. They make you say things that aren’t true just because they once were and you want to believe they still are. “Andy Pettitte is still a reliable mid-rotation starter” is one of those things. Pettitte, who has a 4.39 ERA and 3.75 FIP in 16 starts, has had a season very appropriate for baseball’s oldest starting pitcher. The 41-year-old battled nagging back and lat problems early in the year and has been pretty hittable of late, pitching to a 4.96 ERA and 3.28 FIP in eight starts since coming off the DL. Older finesse pitchers are exactly the kind of guys who underperform their peripherals. Andy has been a dandy number four or five starter, but he hasn’t been particularly reliable or durable this year.
Supposedly team ownership — or at least someone above the baseball operations level — brought Ichiro back on a two-year deal this past winter, a definite head-scratcher of a move. A recent hot streak has raised his season line to .283/.320/.393 (92 wRC+), which is almost identical to the .283/.307/.390 (91 wRC+) line he put up last season. He’s no longer a true burner (on pace for 22 steals) or an elite defender (especially considering how he wastes his arm strength by taking forever to get rid of the ball), but he’s an above-average contributor both on the bases and in the field. A below-average offensive player and above-average defender in right field is a serviceable player, but not exactly a world-burner. Ichiro didn’t completely fall off a cliff this year, and that’s about the best thing you can say about his 2013.
Warren was in a weird place coming into this season, mostly because he appeared to be ticketed for a third trip to Triple-A Scranton since there was no big league opening for him. That’s how careers stall. Phil Hughes started the year on the DL with a back problem though, opening the long-man role for Warren. When Nova went down, that spot stayed open. Warren took advantage of that opportunity and has pitched to a 3.09 ERA and 3.84 FIP while averaging more than 2.2 innings per appearance. He’s had some real bullpen savers this year, including 5.1 innings on April 3rd (one run), four scoreless innings on both May 13th and May 22th, and six scoreless innings in the 18-inning marathon against the Athletics on June 13th. Long reliever is a mostly thankless job, but Warren has excelled in that role and put himself in position to be considered for a starting job next season, or maybe even in the second half of this year.
The Yankees have spent the better part of the last three months placing player after player on the DL, but they’ve managed to survive all those personnel losses this season. Hell, they haven’t just survived, they’ve thrived. They currently sit atop the division by two full games and have both the most wins (25) in baseball and best overall record (25-14) in the AL. Their ragtag lineup has scored just enough runs to support a pretty excellent pitching staff, which is the formula they need to follow given the current roster.
Not everyone in that ragtag lineup is pulling their weight though. Ichiro Suzuki, the projected everyday (or thereabouts) right fielder coming into the season, has hit a punchless .246/.289/.341 (63 wRC+) in 137 plate appearances this year. That is pretty atrocious. Remember how awful Randy Winn was in 2010? How we couldn’t wait until the team designated him for assignment? He had a 63 wRC+ with the Yankees that year. Chris Stewart had a 65 wRC+ last year. Ichiro, a corner outfielder, is hitting like a backup catcher.
Usually when a player performs this poorly, the team just releases them and walks away. The Yankees showed little patience with Winn, releasing him before the end of May. Ichiro isn’t most players though — he’s Ichiro!, a future first ballot Hall of Famer and iconic player in two hemispheres. Furthermore, the “top of the Yankees hierarchy” gave him a two-year contract that runs through 2014. Suzuki’s three-week hot streak last September — which the Yankees probably don’t make the postseason without — is still fresh in everyone’s mind as well. It’s complicated.
Curtis Granderson came off the DL yesterday, but the Yankees also lost Travis Hafner for at least a few days with shoulder tendinitis. It’s one step forward, one step back with the injuries this year. Hafner’s absence saves Ichiro’s everyday job for the time being, only because they need a warm body to plug into the lineup. The alternatives are Ben Francisco and Alberto Gonzalez, so yeah. Ichiro continues to play.
That can’t continue much longer though, not unless Suzuki gets hot and starts performing better. He did go on a nice tear for about two weeks late last month, so it’s not impossible, but he has reached base just four times — all base hits, no walks or hit-by-pitches — in his last 30 plate appearances. Ichiro, the historically great hit machine, is currently riding an 0-for-16 slump, an 0-for-16 slump with a lot of ugly swings and at-bats in general. There are times he is completely non-competitive at the plate.
The poor performance this year really shouldn’t be a surprise given how the last two years have played out. Ichiro hit .277/.308/.361 (84 wRC+) in nearly 1,400 plate appearances from 2011-2012, so a further decline in performance at age 39 should have been expected. He’s always been a no walks, no power offensive player, and as soon as those types of hitters lose bat and foot speed, it tends to go south in a hurry. It’s not often a gradual decline, it’s a tumble over the cliff. Ichiro is aging like a player with his skill set should age, though his greatness allowed him to avoid that fate until well into his late-30s.
Winn hooked on with the Cardinals and was a little more productive (87 wRC+) down the stretch in 2010, and Ichiro is certainly capable of turning it around in a hurry. His iconic status and contract mean his roster spot is very safe for the time being, and indeed he does have some value defensively and on the bases. He’s best suited for pinch-running and defensive replacement duties though, classic fourth outfielder stuff, which is the role he should fill with Granderson back once Hafner is healthy. The Yankees have written the book on finding productive veterans in recent years, but Ichiro looks more and more like a miss with each passing day. Unfortunately, he isn’t as easily disposable as most of the other scrap heap pickups.