As the New York Yankees’ season fizzled out in the American League Championship Series with accusations and recriminations flying faster than fastballs, I wondered what would become of Ichiro Suzuki when the shouting subsided. As of a few days ago I thought they had reached an agreement for Suzuki’s continued employment, but apparently Suzuki’s free agent status is still free.
Just the other day there was a report in Japan that Suzuki and the Yankees came to a nice, understated, one-year agreement for him to continue playing ball in the Bronx in 2013. I particularly liked the note that Suzuki would be paid 400 million yen. Before I could seek a currency translation I learned that is the equivalent of $5 million. By Yankee standards that’s practically minimum wage, but by real-life standards in Major League baseball that seems to be a fair price.
Suzuki wants to return to the Yankees. New York general manager Brian Cashman said the Yankees want Suzuki to return to the Yankees. But no signatures have been traded. Cashman said the team was lining up its pitching first, and now with that task seemingly taken care of, it wouldn’t be surprising if the deal got done an hour from now.
Ichiro had come to the end of the line in Seattle, bored with the Mariners’ constant rebuilding that seemed to offer him no chance to get to a World Series before age caught up to him. Indeed, it seemed, the calendar had overtaken his skills and that 2012 might well be the end of the big-league line for him. But the Yankees took a gamble on acquiring the outfielder in the latter months of the summer. After a non-descript adjustment period, Suzuki shined, especially in the playoffs when his heralded teammates were going down with the ship, either through injury or because they abruptly became hitting challenged.
Suzuki has had a unique career. He is 39, but didn’t transplant his fleet feet and remarkable bat to the majors until he was 27 and established as a star in his native Japan. He has earned Hall of Fame status through what he has accomplished despite his late start. Right now he is sitting on 2,606 American-made hits with a .322 lifetime average. Suzuki only hit .283 last season when everyone believed he was washed up, after a non-Ichiro-like performance with the Mariners. He batted just. 261 for Seattle in 95 games, but was rejuvenated in New York, hitting .322 in 67 games. He also made enough big plays in the playoffs to upgrade his value.
Certainly, Ichiro has shown signs of slippage in recent seasons, but coming through for New York in the last couple of months of the 2012 regular season and in the post-season definitely makes signing him to a new contract a popular transaction. At the same time, Suzuki is 39 and after commanding salaries of $18 million a year with the Mariners, the one-year length of this apparent offer, coupled with the respect-worthy salary (but not an overpayment) makes sense all around.
However, I believe Ichiro thinks he can maintain a high level of play for longer than one more year. I also think he desperately harbors the desire to reach 3,000 hits in the U.S. Ichiro played nine years in Japan before coming to this country and accumulated 1,278 hits there, so he is well beyond the 3,000 threshold. I am sure he wants to surpass 4,000 hits combined and even stay in shape long enough to pass Pete Rose‘s 4,191 hits.
Up until his sketchy 2012 season, I thought Suzuki might have that in him. Now I’m not so sure it’s possible for him to reach either the U.S. 3,000 milestone or Rose’s mark. One thing at a time, though. He needs a team. The Yankees seem like a good fit, but it would be fascinating if somebody like the suddenly flush Boston Red Sox waved a two-year, guaranteed contract for say $8 million a year at him.
What would Ichiro do?