Saturday, October 27, 2012

Season Assessment & Offseason Outlook: Brett Gardner & Ichiro Suzuki

The 2012 Yankees’ lineup first took a hit when Brett Gardner’s elbow sidelined him in mid-April. Setbacks and a surgery in July kept the outfielder off the active roster until late September.

General manager Brian Cashman shocked a lot of people by acquiring Ichiro Suzuki from the Seattle Mariners on Aug. 3 in exchange for minor league pitchers D.J. Mitchell and Danny Farquhar. In the final year of his contract, Ichiro – then 38 – was hitting just .260 with an OBP of .287 but Cashman took the low-risk, high-reward opportunity the 10-time All-Star requested for.

Season Assessment: In nine games before his injury, Gardner was playing pretty well- a .321 average (nine-for-28) with two doubles, three RBI, two stolen bases and five runs scored. He started the postseason on the bench as a pinch runner and stole two bases in Yankees’ 6-4 loss to Detroit in Game 1 of the ALCS. Gardner started in Games 3 and 4 but went hitless in seven at-bats.

Ichiro was acquired to take over Gardner’s role, to use his speed to make things happen on the bases and create opportunities offensively, while playing solid defense in the outfield.

Primarily a leadoff hitter for the first 11 years of his career, Ichiro was dropped in the Yankees’ order – just as the team told him before the trade was finalized. Batting mostly eighth in the lineup, Ichiro’s season was rejuvenated following the trade. He hit .322 overall in 67 games with the Yankees, with five home runs, 27 RBI, 14 SB and a .340 OBP. The team warned him that he would sit some games against left-handed starters, but Ichiro hit .397 (27-for-68) against southpaws, as opposed to .289 against righties. He took advantage of the confines of Yankee Stadium and hit .359 in pinstripes. Defensively, he recorded a perfect 1.000 fielding percentage.

In his first postseason since 2001, Ichiro hit just .275 but was one of the few productive hitters in the Yankees’ lineup. He hit two doubles and drove in three runs in the ALDS against Baltimore. His two-run home run in the ninth inning of Game 1 in the ALCS set the stage for Raul Ibanez’s final heroics.

Offseason Outlook: With Nick Swisher’s likely departure, that opens up a corner outfield position for the Yankees. Curtis Granderson’s $15-million team option will most likely be exercised but his future is somewhat unclear. Regardless of what the Yankees do with Granderson, many expect Gardner to have a starting job in 2013, whether it’s in left field or center field. According to Joel Sherman, Ichiro, 39, “strongly” wants to be a Yankee in 2013 and a one-year, $5-$8-million deal could possibly get it done. 

However, Sherman also wrote that New York intends to build a lineup with left-handed power to take advantage of the short porch in right field. An outfield of Gardner, Granderson and Ichiro would not hit with sufficient power to fulfill that plan, but would steer away from the power-based offense that went flat this postseason. The Yankees may be looking for a right-handed hitting corner outfielder (Torii Hunter, perhaps) to replace Swisher in front of the Bleacher Creatures. Should Ichiro return – and some aren’t too optimistic about those chances – it’s very possible that he or Gardner will not be an everyday starter.


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