Both Ichiro Suzuki and I were wrong about the impact he would have when he joined the New York Yankees in a swap with the Seattle Mariners this summer. The implications are much graver for him than me, however.
The player and I agreed that a change of scenery, moving from a floundering Mariners team with no hope of making the 2012 playoffs to a resilient Yankees team that will enter the post-season as one of the favorites to win the World Series after capturing the American League East Division would be an elixir. He has been better than he was in Seattle, true, batting .312 for New York, but that has only raised his season average to .268 and I sure do see a lot of zero-for-three nights in the box scores like the one Friday night in a win over the Red Sox.
For his entire Major League career, the first Japanese position player to star in the U.S. has been a speed-demon outfielder, wreaking havoc on the base paths, and adding points to his impressive average by collecting infield hits. These days (with the exception of a three-hit game the other day), Suzuki hasn’t been gathering as many helpful hits as it seems. He has always been a top-of-the-order guy, leading off and certainly never batting lower than third in Seattle’s lineup, but at the moment he is batting ninth. He’s also been used as a designated hitter.
I can’t really figure out exactly what the issue is, unless he is finished. Suzuki appears to be playing better than he did with Seattle, but the Yankees have not shown much confidence in him. Of course, they don’t have nearly as much need with their more talented, deep lineup than the Mariners had.
The absolute worst sign for a player who is a lifetime .322 hitter, with batting titles and other honors on his resume, is that Suzuki is just not making things happen the way he used to jump-start things. He was brilliant at the hit-and-run, bunted cooly, messed up fielders’ minds with his speed. Now he is not even reaching base. After Friday night’s game, Suzuki owns a .294 on-base percentage for the season. Even if that stat has been .338 for New York, that’s not good enough.
I have been a Suzuki fan for years. He was a delight to watch at the plate, in the field, on the bases. He put up astronomical numbers, setting the record for most hits in a season, routinely accumulating 200 hits in a season. And that was after a fairly lengthy, star-turn in Japan. I figured Suzuki, now 38, was such a hitting machine that he would be a regular until he was 40 and hang on a little bit longer than that. He has been sliding steadily the last two years, but I really believed the shift to the Yankees, joining a pennant contender, would prove more exciting than it has been.
Ichiro’s career is at a crossroads. His contract is up after the season and I am sure he wants to keep playing. For a guy used to making around $17 million a season, though, he’s going to be trailed by too many questionmarks for most teams to express more than single-season interest at a rate of probably around $5 million a season, at best, with a bunch of incentives involved.
There is still time for Suzuki to go on the kind of tear he has been famous for and it would be something to see if he started banging out two hits a night and helped carry the Yanks in the playoffs. The only real hole on his resume is a World Series ring. This year that has to be the most powerful motivator of all for him. If he concludes the year as a champion, Suzuki probably won’t even care much where he suits up in 2012.