What Went Wrong: Ichiro Suzuki

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.

Yep.

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:

Ichiro 2013 wOBA

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.

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Cashman’s Press Conference Recap: Girardi, Cano, A-Rod, Sabathia, Luxury Tax, More

Not from today. Presswire)
Not from today. (Presswire)

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.

[Read more…]

With offense struggling, it’s time to pull the plug on Ichiro and Stewart

(Jared Wickerham/Getty)
(Jared Wickerham/Getty)

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.

2013 Midseason Review: Grade C’s

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.

(Jeff Gross/Getty)
(Jeff Gross/Getty)

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.

Preston Claiborne
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.

Ivan Nova
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.

(Hannah Foslien/Getty)
(Hannah Foslien/Getty)

Andy Pettitte
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.

Ichiro Suzuki
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.

Adam Warren
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 Ichiro Problem

(Jason Miller/Getty)
(Jason Miller/Getty)

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.

Sherman: “Top of the Yankees hierarchy” was behind Ichiro re-signing

This isn’t the most surprising thing in the world, but Joel Sherman reports the “top of the Yankees hierarchy” demanded the re-signing of Ichiro Suzuki this past offseason following “a strong Division Series and adoration from the fans.” Who knows what “top of the hierarchy” actually means, but it sure sounds like something above the baseball operations department.

Ichiro, 39, has managed to raise his early-season batting line to .185/.233/.296 following a multi-hit game and a homer against the Indians these last two days. The Yankees gave him a two-year, $13M contract over the winter and it just so happens he has a shot to record his 3,000th MLB hit next September. He’ll have to pick-up the pace to get there though, he’s currently 389 hits away from the milestone. It seemed like a move motivated more by off-field interests (marketing, merchandise, etc.) than on-field production from the start.

2013 Season Preview: The Right Fielders

(Star-Ledger)
(Star-Ledger)

Aside from two years of darkness between Paul O’Neill and Gary Sheffield, the Yankees have had some really productive right fielders over the last 30 years or so. It goes back to Dave Winfield and Jesse Barfield in the 1980s up to Bobby Abreu and Nick Swisher in the late-2000s/early-2010s. All fit the typical Yankee mold of power and patience, but the team completely reversed course this winter and will have a new look in right field this coming season.

The Starter
The Yankees decided a draft pick and financial flexibility was better than Swisher this offseason, so they replaced him with his polar opposite in Ichiro Suzuki. Swisher hits for power, Ichiro doesn’t. Swisher draws walks, Ichiro doesn’t. Swisher doesn’t steal bases, Ichiro does. Swisher swings and misses, Ichiro doesn’t. Swisher plays an average right field, Ichiro is much better. On and on it goes.

Of course, New York originally acquired Ichiro from the Mariners at the trade deadline for little cost because he simply stopped hitting, putting up a .268/.302/.342 batting line in his final 1,144 plate appearances with Seattle. That dates back to Opening Day 2011. His first 140 plate appearances in New York weren’t much better (.271/.297/.398), but he hit .394/.402/.532 in his final 100 plate appearances of the year. Ichiro either a) got comfortable all of a sudden, b) changed something mechanically, or c) just got lucky. Given his (and hitting coach Kevin Long’s) recent comments to Ken Davidoff, we can rule out (b).

(Star-Ledger)
(Star-Ledger)

Regardless of what was responsible for that September success, the Yankees have to hope it continues. They gave the 39-year-old Ichiro the only multi-year contract they handed out this winter (two years), a leap of faith at best and a stunningly poor decision at worst. It seems obvious off-field considerations like marketing and merchandise sales — Ichiro has an outside shot at reaching 3,000 hits late in 2014 — drove the contract while on-field impact was a secondary concern. In fairness, Ichiro is one of the few players with legitimate marquee value that transcends his on-field production. He’s a global star and will generate revenue for the team as long as he wears the uniform. Given Hal Steinbrenner’s admitted focus on the bottom line, this isn’t a surprise.

On the field, the Yankees are getting a contact machine who swings early and often, and will put the ball on the ground and use his speed to beat out infield hits. Yankee Stadium will surely boost Ichiro’s homer output somewhat, but all those ground balls limit his power ceiling. He’s a sterling defender with a lot of range and the best right field arm the Yankees have had since … Raul Mondesi? … but it plays down a bit because his release his slow. Maybe the Yankees will get vintage Ichiro!, the guy who hit .300+ in his sleep, or maybe they’re getting a near-40-year-old replacement level outfielder with name value. The club has to hope it’s the former (or at least someone in-between) because they pushed all their chips to the middle of the table on bet on those last three weeks of September.

The Backup
As I’ve said the last two days, the backup outfielder is still very much undecided. The Yankees signed Ben Francisco to a minor league deal earlier this week and added him to a competition that includes Juan Rivera, Matt Diaz, Ronnie Mustelier, Melky Mesa, Zoilo Almonte, Thomas Neal, and like ten other guys I’m problem forgetting. Curtis Granderson‘s fractured forearm has complicated things, meaning two of those players will make the roster rather than just one. Ichiro doesn’t have much of a platoon split — .283/.307/.342 against lefties the last two years — but the Yankees could use a better right field bat against southpaws. I think they consider him a full-time player, or at least a most-of-the-time player, meaning the backup outfielder — whoever that wins up being — will see most of his action in center and left.

Knocking on the Door
Brian Cashman recently told reporters the club has “future everyday right fielder scouting grades” on 23-year-old Almonte, who hit .278/.322/.488 (120 wRC+) with 21 homers and 15 steals in 450 plate appearances for Double-A Trenton last summer. Assuming he doesn’t make the team out of Spring Training — I think it would be surprise given all of the other alternatives — he’ll open the season as the regular right fielder with Triple-A Scranton. The Yankees added Almonte to the 40-man roster after the 2011 season to prevent him from being exposed to the Rule 5 Draft, so calling him up won’t be much of a headache. Even it’s just a cup of coffee in September, Zoilo will undoubtedly make his big league debut in 2013.

(Star-Ledger)
(Star-Ledger)

The Top Prospect
New York has one of the best right field prospects in baseball in 21-year-old Tyler Austin. I ranked him as their third best prospect overall in my preseason top 30 list due in large part to his monstrous offensive performance — Austin hit .322/.400/.559 with 17 homers and 23 steals (in 25 attempts) in 472 plate appearances across four levels in 2012 and .331/.406/.563 in 677 plate appearances since signing for just $130k as the team’s 13th round pick in 2010. He’s a right-handed hitter with a plan at the plate and the ability to drive the ball to all fields, though there are some questions about his long-term power potential because his swing is so level and doesn’t generate much backspin. Either way, Austin is scheduled to start the season with Double-A Trenton and could easily force his way into the big league picture by the end of the season if he keeps hitting like he has.

The Deep Sleeper
The obvious answer here is 21-year-old Yeicok Calderon, who managed a .270/.354/.478 (147 wRC+) line with a league-leading eight homers in 181 plate appearances for the rookie level Gulf Coast League Yankees last summer. The Yankees signed him for $650k back in 2008, so he’s a little old for a GCL prospect and was repeating the level last year. Regardless, Baseball America says “Calderon’s bat is advanced, he controls the strike zone well and he has above-average power” from the left side. He’s not much of a defender, so his bat is going to have to carry him. Calderon should continue to mash in the low minors and figures to open the season with Low-A Charleston.

* * *

I think it’s pretty clear the Yankees have downgraded in right field this season, but we have to acknowledge that Ichiro isn’t just a great player, he’s a historically great player. Historically great players tend to age differently and frankly, if Ichiro went out and hit .310/.350/.440 this season, it wouldn’t be the most surprisingly thing in the world. I don’t expect it, but it’s not impossible. The Yankees have nice right field depth in both Triple-A and Double-A, so they’re in okay shape in 2013 and beyond.

Other Previews: Catchers, First Basemen, Second Basemen, Shortstops, Third Basemen, Left Fielders, Center Fielders