Ichiro worth a gamble for Yankees - NBC Sports

Ichiro worth a gamble for Yankees
Playing for a contender could invigorate once-great outfielder
AP
Ichiro Suzuki's bat has declined over the last two seasons, but he still plays a strong outfield and possesses speed on the basepaths.
July 24, 2012, 6:07 pm

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Tony DeMarco

TonyDeMarco

NBCSports.com contributor

c 2013 NBC Sports.com Reprints

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MSNBC.com Sports Columnist Tony DeMarco

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Baseball Expert Tony DeMarco has been covering the big leagues since 1987, and been casting Hall of Fame ballots for the last 15 years. He answers questions weekly here:

Q: Ichiro is a huge name, obviously, but has declined greatly in the last couple of seasons. What kind of impact do you think he can make with the Yankees?
- Harland Roberts, New York

A: Yes, Ichiro's downward-trending numbers are undeniable. His last outstanding season was 2010, when he batted .315 with a league-leading 214 hits. But even in that season, he fell off his career pace in runs scored, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and OPS. Things have gone downhill in a hurry from there, as in 2011-12, Ichiro is a .268 hitter, his on-base percentage is right around .300 and his OPS is down to .644 - about .100 points below his career mark.

But the Yankees were willing to gamble that Ichiro, 38, will be invigorated by the move from arguably the AL's worst team to arguably the best - with another trip to the postseason pending - and I agree that it's worth a shot.

A single in his first Yankee at-bat, and subsequent stolen base, showed there's still something left - and it wouldn't shock me a bit if a recharged Ichiro hits close to .300, pulls a half-dozen homers into those ridiculously reachable right-field seats at Yankee Stadium, and plays regularly down the stretch in pinstripes. As for beyond this season, it's simply too early to tell.

But there is a far more-immediate need here, as the deal comes in the wake of Brett Gardner's loss due to a season-ending elbow injury, and Nick Swisher being temporarily sidelined by a hip injury. And don't underrate the four-game sweep suffered at the hands of the Oakland A's over the weekend as an impetus, either.

While manager Joe Girardi has indicated Ichiro will play mostly in left field once Swisher returns, it also won't surprise me if Ichiro ends up playing a lot in his customary right field - where he has won 10 Gold Gloves (the last in 2010), and has a far stronger and accurate arm than Swisher.

But wherever Ichiro plays, he makes the Yankees' outfield defense better. He also brings a speed element (16 of 18 steal attempts this season) that was lost with Gardner's injury.

Ichiro's addition will take at-bats from the current left-field platoon of Raul Ibanez and Andruw Jones, but that makes the bench deeper, and Girardi has rotated several players through the DH spot, anyway.

So there really is much potentially to gain, and little downside risk here, as the prospects sent to the Mariners are fringe types, unlikely to contribute much at the big-league level.

Q: The A's are playing great baseball of late, winning games against good competition. How are they getting it done, and can they keep it up?
- Jeff Stockton, San Diego

A: No team is hotter, as the A's have gone 14-2 in July and 8-1 since the All-Star break - taking their record from 37-42 to 51-44 and putting themselves in wild-card contention.

They do it with pitching, of course, as their home park is one of the most pitcher-friendly in the game. They lead the AL in ERA and opponents' batting average, their bullpen ERA is the only one in the AL under 3.00, and their walk rate (1.65 per game) has been the majors' best in July.

And it's no coincidence that the second-half surge has paralleled Yoenis Cespedes' hot streak - 18 for 36 with four homers and nine RBI in nine games after the break.

Bob Melvin's team also has a knack for walk-off wins, with a major-league-leading 11, and that can get contagious, leading to overachieving seasons such as the 2011 Diamondbacks were able to pull off. And while nobody's threatening Rickey Henderson's stolen base records, these A's do run - currently third in the AL in steals.

With Brett Anderson and Brandon McCarthy likely to return soon to join young starters Jarrod Parker and Tommy Milone, you wouldn't expect too much falloff in the staff's performance.

But the problem remains an offense that is last in the league in runs and batting average, and second-to-last in on-base percentage and slugging percentage - and you don't make the postseason with that lack of production.

So the A's are looking for help, particularly at third base - Chase Headley, among others - and likely will make a deal, without getting carried away. You have to keep in mind that winning a wild-card spot now guarantees you nothing more than a one-game playoff, and that's why you're not seeing teams in wild-card contention (but not division-title contention) deal away elite prospects.

The A's chances of winning a playoff spot are enhanced by the AL East teams beating up on each other, but even so, they're one of six teams most likely shooting for one wild-card spot - maybe two - so the odds aren't good.

But they're sure fun to watch right now.

Q: Early in the season, you noted the Braves looked like they were coming to an end of a long run as contenders. Things have changed since then, and they look like a reasonable bet for a wildcard, if not the division title. What are they doing now that wasn't happening earlier?
- David Pabon, Mission Hills, Calif.

A: I did pick the Braves to finish fourth in the NL East, but with 83 wins, so it's not as if I thought they were falling apart.

I had a handful of concerns about them bouncing back from their 2011 collapse, and some of those problem areas still exist. But the Braves sit eight games over .500 in second place, and in solid wild-card contention - thanks in part to the bigger problems of the Miami Marlins and Philadelphia Phillies.

Meanwhile, were the younger starting pitchers ready to step up? The answer has turned out to be no, and in fact, the Braves reportedly could be adding Ryan Dempster to their rotation - a nice pickup if it happens. And how about Ben Sheets' comeback? Nobody was expecting him to throw 12 shutout innings in his first two starts since 2010.

Shortstop was another concern, and they're trying Paul Janish after the unfortunate injury to Andrelton Simmons, who looks like he'll be one of the game's better defensive shortstops.

Could the heavily-worked threesome of Craig Kimbrel, Jonny Venters and Eric O'Flaherty do it for a second year in a row? Yes in two of three cases, but Venters has struggled and spent time on the DL. Fortunately, Kris Medlen has stepped up.

And finally, the health of Chipper Jones/lack of power in the lineup. While the Braves are middle-of-the-NL-pack in homers, they are fourth in runs scored, so they're scoring enough to be a playoff team. Still, there is at least speculation about a deal for Justin Upton (although if he is dealt, it's far more likely to come in the off-season, rather than in the next week).

It all adds up to the Braves being one of eight teams fighting for the five NL playoff spots - the Nationals, Reds, Pirates, Cardinals, Giants, Dodgers and Diamondbacks being the others - and capable of passing a Nationals team that will be shutting down their ace pitcher in September.

The next checkpoint is the July 31 trade deadline, which as we saw once again with the Cardinals last season, can dramatically change teams' fortunes.

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