Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Instant Trade Analysis: Ichiro Suzuki to the New York Yankees

New York Yankees get: OF Ichiro Suzuki, $4.5 million

Seattle Mariners get: P Danny Farquhar, P DJ Mitchell

I came home from work today, to find my bearded roommate in the kitchen preparing dinner. In between cuts of green beans, I asked him, "did you hear who the Yankees traded for today?" He looked at me instantly wide-eyed, knowing that such a question is never asked without an answer that lives up to the fast twitch reaction. I told him the player was outrageously hilarious, but not because it was a star like Matt Kemp or Justin Upton. After a few wild guesses like Barry Bonds or Manny Ramirez, I let him have it: the New York Yankees had just traded for Ichiro Suzuki. He looked back, laughed, and that was that. In a trade that seemingly only the New York Yankees could make, GM Brian Cashman has found himself an outfield replacement for Brett Gardner in Seattle Mariners franchise cornerstone, Ichiro Suzuki.

Ichiro, 38, was in his 12th season in a Mariners' uniform, the team having paid him over $129 million for his incredible 2500+ hits, 10 Gold Gloves, 4 top-10 MVP finishes and .322 lifetime batting average. Along with Ken Griffey, Jr. and Edgar Martinez, Suzuki is one of the greatest Mariners ever to play in the Pacific Northwest, and undoubtedly the greatest Asian athlete ever to play in a North American professional sports league. The Yankees are always one of the most popular teams in Japan, but adding an international star like Ichiro to the Bombers is like throwing a case of gold schlager into a frat party - it's going to be insane, messy and a bit hysterical.

In an incredible turn of events, Cashman and the Yankees had quietly been dealing with Seattle for weeks, knowing full well that Brett Gardner might not be back again playing this season. Today the deal finally went through, with Ichiro joining his new team....right across the hall at Safeco Field. Perhaps just a coincidence, or maybe part of an extended final curtain call by the Mariners' brain trust, but Suzuki's first game as the new Yankees left fielder (a position which he's never played in a regular season game) came in Seattle just hours ago. He had a solid outing as the number 8 hitter for Joe Girardi, going 1 for 4 with a stolen base with, at times, a shockingly tepid reaction from the crowd.

For the Yankees, there's very little downside to the deal. As previously constructed, New York was depending on production from a 40 year-old Raul Ibanez and a resurgent 35 year-old Andrew Jones in left. Though both providing excellent production for their contracts, in certain ways they are very redundant. They're both low-average, high power hitters, and in Jones' case, high on strikeouts. Both players pose no speed threat once aboard, nor do they particularly have the aptitude for high on-base numbers like Ichiro. Yes, Suzuki's .261 batting average isn't much better than Jones' .229 mark, or Ibanez's .241, but his .297 stroke away from Safeco Field has to embolden some doubters. He brings the Yanks the versatility that they lost when Gardner went down, and in Girardi's words, might reinvigorate the bottom half of the lineup.

Much like any great player whose languished in the abyss of losing for so many years, it's easy to see how Ichiro's play could be jump-started simply by switching teams. The Mariners haven't made the playoffs since (remarkably) 2001, the same year Suzuki won AL Rookie of the Year and MVP simultaneously. In fact, Seattle has broken the 78-win seal only once since 2003, having lost at least 99 games three times. All the while, Ichiro has put up historic statistics even though he's been surrounded by a historically inept lineup full of losers and retreads that have undoubtedly bogged down his spirit and dampened his play. His age obviously has hastened his decline, but he certainly won't be worse in a Yankees lineup that requires him to do little except hit singles and play his usual excellent defense in the outfield.

Also, Hiroki Kuroda will have a friend.

The cost for obtaining Ichiro, even with his deteriorated performance this year and on an expiring contract, was shockingly small. Both Mitchell and Farquhar aren't anything more than middle inning relievers, with Mitchell finding the most major league success out of the two. Neither were featured on the Yankees top-20 prospects this season. In fact, Farquhar has been cut twice, first by the Blue Jays and then by the Athletics, and then finally being selected on waivers by New York. In very short hand, the Yankees gave up two scrubs who probably won't be major leaguers in two years to get one of the greatest outfielders ever to live, albeit one in decline. My bearded roommate is still laughing.

The biggest stumbling block here had to be the price of Ichiro's remaining contract for the year at around $6.7 million, but with the Mariners paying all but $2.2 million of it, the Yankees had to jump at a potential difference making outfielder for such a relative pittance.

For the Mariners, I'm not sure what the motivation for this trade was other than showing respect for their star outfielder. The story goes that a few weeks ago, Ichiro and his management asked Seattle to trade him if they could, knowing that he wouldn't be a part of their rebuilding movement. That, along with playing time needed down the stretch for Carlos Peguero, Casper Wells and Mike Carp (not to mention ABs for DH Jesus Montero) the Mariners almost felt that they needed to shed Suzuki as addition by subtraction. They lost money in this deal, not only in what they gave to the Yankees to facilitate it, but also in losing ballpark revenue that Ichiro's presence generates all on his own. This was a classy move by an organization feeling indebted to a superstar who has printed capital merely by playing extremely hard every single day.

What's most remarkable about this trade is that the Yankees come out on top merely if Ichiro stays at his current level of production. A number 8 hitter who is on pace for 30 steals and hits .260 justifiably would have a place in any line-up, even one as vaunted as that in the Bronx. I expect that this trade will have a much better outcome than similar deals for Pudge Rodriguez or even an injured Lance Berkman a few seasons back. The baseball-watching world should be happy to watch Ichiro have a legitimate shot at a chip with the Bombers, even if it is in pinstripes.

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