By Steve Kallas
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While the Yankees' season was much about the end of Derek Jeter's career, it might have also been the end of another all-time great's career in the Bronx. A certain top 50 player of all time.
Yes, Ichiro Suzuki may have played his last game as a Yankee. And, yes, if you win 10 Gold Gloves in a row and get over 200 hits 10 seasons in a row, you are a top 50 player of all time.
While he's not what he used to be, I believe that Ichiro has never received the respect he deserves from the Yankees, from the media and even from most fans. Before the season began, Yankee announcers on the YES Network talked about how Ichiro was being showcased for a possible trade. Even early in the season, the announcers talked about how Ichiro might be traded to another team that needed a center fielder.
At the time, given the makeup of the team and the high level that Ichiro was playing at, I could not believe that the Yankees would trade Ichiro. As discussed back then, with an old and/or injury-prone group of outfielders (Carlos Beltran, Jacoby Ellsbury, Brett Gardner and Alfonso Soriano) seemingly ahead of Ichiro, you didn't have to know much to know that he would get an opportunity to play this past season.
SO, WHAT HAPPENED TO THE YANKEES OUTFIELD IN 2014?
Well, you know what happened. Beltran played only 32 games in the outfield (76 as a DH) and hit .233. Soriano, after doing so much for the Yankees in 2013, fell off a cliff and only played 34 games in the outfield, hitting .221 before he was released. Ellsbury had a decent-to-good year, hitting .271 while playing 149 games in the outfield. Gardner, who must have played hurt at the end of the year, was having a good season but slumped badly late, playing 147 games in the outfield while slumping to .256.
Ichiro? Well he started off like a ball of fire. But then, at the end of June, he had to face questions about leaked reports that the Yankees wanted to trade him to the Astros back in March. The reports also stated that the Yankees would have been willing to eat $4.5 million of his $6.5 million salary.
Maybe the YES announcers knew this at the start of the season, and that's why they were making what turned out to be stupid comments.
You know the saying: Sometimes the trades you don't make are the best ones of all.
WHAT HAPPENED TO ICHIRO AFTER HE WAS ASKED THOSE TRADE QUESTIONS?
Well, in un-Ichiro-like fashion, he went into a dismal, month-long slump, batting .224 in the month of July to have his average drop to .269.
But then what happened? Well Ichiro was arguably the best Yankees position player the rest of the season, batting .312 in August and September (finishing the season at .284 with 102 hits) and playing his usual very-good-to-excellent defense.
As stated in my column back in April, Ichiro can't hit like he used to, but he can still hit. Ichiro can't quite run like he used to, but he can still get down the line and was an impressive 15-of-18 in stolen-base attempts (83 percent). He's not the "Spiderman" of years ago, but he is still a very-good-to-excellent defensive outfielder. He doesn't have the gun he once had in the outfield, but he still has a very good arm.
If anyone tells you that old saying that players will play "to the back of their baseball card," just show them the 2014 New York Yankees. It was an offensive disaster. Here are the Yankees with at least 250 at-bats and their respective batting averages in 2014:
Jacoby Ellsbury: .271
Brett Gardner: .256
Derek Jeter: .256
Yangervis Solarte: .254
Now it gets much worse:
Brian Roberts: .237
Carlos Beltran: .233
Brian McCann: .232
Mark Teixeira: .216
The team leader? Ichiro at .284.
Now we know that Ichiro is not a good OBP guy (only .324 for the season). But, interestingly, his splits for leading off the inning were.306/.359. In the only two games that he did actually bat first in the lineup, he was 3-for-8 (.375). While this is not a pitch to state that Ichiro should have batted first (his historical OBP did not warrant that), it must have been hard for a proud man like Ichiro to lead the team in batting by a wide margin while hitting, mainly, at the bottom of the order.
Couple that with the trade rumors that he was asked about at the very end of June, and one can clearly understand why, when asked earlier this week about whether he would return to the Yankees, Ichiro made some cryptic remarks about how people don't know about things that go on behind the scenes.
I don't believe that Ichiro was jealous of the Jeter farewell tour, or even the fact that Jeter was locked in to the No. 2 spot while struggling to hit .270 until that 0-for-28 catastrophe late in the year dropped him into the the .250 range. Joe Girardi said that he wasn't hired to preside over a Jeter farewell tour, but, like it or not, that's essentially what he did.
But Ichiro, correctly, might have been very upset with the trade rumors and the lack of respect he received in the lineup, despite producing for virtually the entire year.
While many "experts" dismissed him as an "old man" or a guy who was about to be traded (at least early in the year), the reality is that he was more productive and looked younger on the field and on the bases than most of the Yankees' regulars.
SO WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?
Well, the Yankees should sign Ichiro to another two-year deal. He's likely going to get 3,000 hits (he's 156 away) in Major League Baseball, a stunning accomplishment for a guy who showed up in America at the age of 27. But the early tea leaves seem to read that the Yankees don't want him back. Maybe he leaves of his own accord because he feels that he was treated unfairly by the Yankees.
If the Yankees don't at least try to sign him, that would be a mistake.
IS ICHIRO A GOOD FIT FOR THE METS?
Well, the knowledgeable Mets fans that I've spoken with tell me that he's not a good fit. And, on paper, they are right. He's not the OBP guy that Sandy Alderson likes to have on his team. He doesn't have any power. He's old (40). All true.
But put his bat in that lineup and compare him with everybody that the Mets have in their lineup. He matches up very well with, if not better than, most of the current Mets. Just as I suggested -- back at the trade deadline -- that the Mets not trade Bartolo Colon so he can solidify a very good, young staff next year, Ichiro could be a calming influence in the Mets' clubhouse next year as well.
Wouldn't it be good to have a future Hall of Famer in that locker room? Wouldn't it be good to have a guy who has played 19 games in the postseason, and has batted .356 with a .400 OBP in those 19 games? As recently as 2012, Ichiro hit .353 with a .389 OBP for the Yankees in the playoffs.
Doesn't anybody know about these numbers?
It's not a matter of why you would want a player like Ichiro in your locker room. It's a matter of -- if you could get him -- how could you not make that move? He would undoubtedly help a young team that has a real good chance to compete for a playoff spot in 2015.
Plus, if Ichiro does leave the Yankees, I believe that he will stick to his legendary regimen and have a strong desire to make the Yankees look bad.
And the Mets could certainly use a guy who is going for 3,000 hits, in addition to, hopefully, being contenders for the next two years.
WHAT IF ICHIRO PASSES PETE ROSE'S HIT TOTAL WHEN ALL HIS HITS ARE ADDED UP?
Well, you can't really compare Ichiro's combined hits (Japan and MLB) with Pete Rose's 4,256 hits in the major leagues. It would be a great accomplishment, and Ichiro has a good chance to do it.
But, as great as he is, here's the real question: If Ichiro had come to America at the age of 20 instead of 27, would he have beaten Rose's record?
Of course, that's an unanswerable question.
Here's hoping that one of the two teams in New York signs Ichiro, one of the greatest baseball players of all time.
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