“The Ichiro of 2012 may not be the Ichiro of 2001, when he was the AL MVP and Rookie of the Year, but if he returns to even a semblance of his old form he can be the missing part that puts the Yankees over the top this October.”
–Wallace Matthews, ESPN.com
The last piece of a puzzle — organizational or jigsaw — is usually not the most important one. A squad that has only one piece of the puzzle missing has most likely added its most important pieces much earlier on the trek towards a complete team. The final piece is important not merely because of its intrinsic value but because it connects so many other pieces, allowing the team to realize new synergies and gel even further.
Such is the case with the Yankees’ missing piece, who is giving a postgame interview to the YES network in Seattle as I write this. Two minutes after making the final putout in his Yankee debut, Ichiro Suzuki says with a grin: “It’s very special to put on the Yankees uniform”.
The Yankees are not getting an AL MVP candidate in Ichiro Suzuki. They are not getting a hit machine unlike anything my Millennial generation has ever seen, nor are they getting a perennial Gold Glover with Brett Gardner’s range and Jesse Barfield’s right arm. The Ichiro of old was all those things, an immediate MVP candidate when he made his debut with Seattle in 2000. Put it this way: The old Ichiro would not have been traded to the Yankees on Monday for minor league also-rans D.J. Mitchell and Danny Farquhar.
The “new” Ichiro is 39, with limited defensive range and a creaky swing at the plate. A perennial .330/.380/.450 hitter, Ichiro’s hitting has plummeted in recent years, bottoming out with this season’s .261/.288/.353 line. He’s still on pace for 25-30 doubles this season, but with an OWAR of just 0.2, Ichiro is hitting at roughly replacement player level.
But like a good last puzzle piece, Ichiro fills many of the holes in the Yankee offense because his style so clearly resembles that of Brett Gardner. Gardner is a pesky left-handed hitter who hits a lot of singles, steals the most bases on the team, takes the extra base, can play any outfield position and is an effective second leadoff hitter from the No. 8 or No. 9 spot. Ichiro spent the last 10 years writing the book on all those traits except for the last one and should easily be able to slide into a back-of-the-lineup slot. With Gardner likely out for the season, Ichiro can fill his role and round out the homer-happy but ponderous Yankee offense.
Ichiro also gives the Yankees additional lineup flexibility, both in the field and at the plate. His arrival should give veteran starters like Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez a few extra games off down the stretch, which could pay big dividends come October. And with Ichiro more than capable of playing center field, Curtis Granderson might actually get more than one game off every two months.
Ichiro showed his strengths in his first Yankee at-bat, slapping a single to center field and stealing second base. He was stranded there and didn’t make a major contribution to the game, but thanks to countryman Hiroki Kuroda he didn’t need to. Kuroda has quietly been the Yankees’ best pitcher starting in late May — since then, he’s posted a 7-1 record with a 2.61 ERA in 11 starts. Kuroda gave the Yankees at least seven innings for the ninth time in those 11 starts Monday, throwing seven frames of three-hit, one-run ball. Three straight run-scoring hits by Mark Teixeira, Raul Ibanez and Andruw Jones in the fourth inning took care of the rest, with a two-iron from A-Rod over the center-field fence in the eighth for good measure.
The 4-1 win was important after the four-game sweep at the hands of the A’s. And we can now stop wondering what the Yankee offense will look like for the rest of the season. The return of Andy Pettitte and Joba Chamberlain could shake up the Yanks’ pitching staff, but the Yankees’ offensive puzzle is complete for 2012.