With yesterday’s acquisition of Ichiro Suzuki, Brian Cashman further cemented his well deserved reputation for using slight of hand when it comes to making trades. However, that doesn’t make him a magician. It’s hard not to get wrapped up in the excitement of adding an international superstar and first ballot Hall of Famer like Ichiro, but the right fielder’s performance since 2011 tells another story. With an unimpressive slash line of .268/.302/.342 in 1,148 plate appearances over that timeframe, even the most optimistic Yankee fan would have to conclude that the team is acquiring a player in the midst of a steady decline. And yet, even though the Yankees are getting an old Ichiro, instead of the Ichiro of old, the trade still makes sense once you get past the hyperbole.
Over the next few days, Ichiro’s superstardom will likely dominate reaction to the trade. In fact, some may even argue that the bright lights of the big stage will help the 38-year old outfielder turn back the clock for a few months. Although that’s certainly possible, history suggests that you can’t count on post-trade rejuvenation. So, in order to justify the trade, there has to be some other reasonable basis for concluding that Ichiro represents an upgrade for the Yankees.
Regardless of how well he hits, Ichiro provides the Yankees with an infusion of speed (he has stolen 56 of 65 since 2011) as well as vastly improved defense. In addition to being a defensive upgrade over the incumbent platoon of Andruw Jones and Raul Ibanez, Ichiro’s presence allows the DH tandem to focus their energy on that what they were originally signed to do: hit. Is that derivative benefit combined with Ichiro’s defense and speed enough to justify the trade? Based on WAR, the answer is probably yes. After all, Ichiro’s average WAR of 1.7 not only surpasses the cumulative contribution of the men he is essentially replacing, but also ranks fourth on the Yankees. When considering all facets of his game, the former Mariner can justify his presence simply by maintaining his current level of offense. But, maybe the Yankees can expect more?
On the road, Ichiro has posted a wOBA of .311, compared to .243 at home, so simply getting away from Safeco could bode well for an improvement. That he will now be playing most of his games at Yankee Stadium is the cherry on top. However, it’s worth noting that while Yankee Stadium is very conducive to left handed homeruns, it doesn’t inflate other offensive statistics. Also, the singles park factor for left handers is comparable at both ballparks, so, unless Ichiro really does have the ability to adopt a power stroke, the advantage gained by playing at Yankee Stadium probably won’t be as significant as anticipated. Instead, what could turn out to be a greater benefit is not facing a schedule heavily weighted against Oakland and Texas, the American League’s top two pitching staffs based on ERA+.
A potential offensive boost by Ichiro is also supported by the quality of his underlying contact. Despite posting a career high line drive rate of 26.1%, Ichiro’s current BABIP is a career low .279. Even if that rate only rises to last year’s depressed level, the outfielder’s offense might approach league average. Then again, hitting balls in the air, no matter how hard, could be part of the problem. Because of his relatively low ground ball-to-fly ball ratio, Ichiro has also posted his lowest percentage of infield hits, a trend that will likely have to be reversed in order for him to improve his offensive production.
At face value, the Yankees have filled a definite need with a player who represents an immediate value upgrade and also has a small amount of reasonable offensive upside. Considering Cashman traded two players on the fringe of the roster, and assumed under $3 million of Ichiro’s remaining salary, the risk/reward seems to tilt meaningfully in the Yankees’ favor. However, the opportunity cost must also be considered.
Just because the Yankees’ may not have given up value to acquire Ichiro doesn’t make the trade a no-brainer. By playing his hand for the future Hall of Famer, the Yankees have also decided to forgo other opportunities, which, albeit more costly, may have provided much greater value. If Ichiro flops in pinstripes, the Yankees will have lost more than D.J. Mitchell, Danny Farquhar, and potentially Dewayne Wise (who was designated for assignment as a result of the transaction). Under that assumption, the opportunity to improve the team would have been forfeited as well.
Based on the rumored asking price for younger players much closer to their prime, Brian Cashman has seemingly determined that whatever Ichiro has left in the tank provides enough reward to justify his acquisition at the expense of several other options. Unless it turns out that a better alternative was available at a comparably affordable price, that bottom line provides more than enough justification for the trade. So, who cares if Ichiro is too old, and why waste time hoping for a magical transformation? Ichiro may not be the superstar of the past, but he should fit right into the Yankees’ present situation.