By Steve Kallas
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With the 2014 season underway, it sure seems like Ichiro is the odd man out in that overloaded Yankee outfield. The winter additions of Jacoby Ellsbury and Carlos Beltran, as well as the four-year extension given to Brett Gardner and the amazing production of Alfonso Soriano, prompted a lot of people to write Ichiro off.
Well, the Yankees may want to hold on to the guy because he could very well end up being a key component this season. All this talk, at least by the Yes Network announcers, of possibly trading Ichiro, should stop immediately.
THE CASE FOR ICHIRO STAYING PUT
All you had to do was watch his first plate appearance of the season to understand his value. Subbing for Ellsbury on Thursday night in Houston, Ichiro went 2-for-4 and actually scored from second on a two-out, 40-foot pop up to just in front of the pitcher’s mound. It gave the Yankees an insurance run in what would become their first win of the season.
What could you surmise from just one game and four at bats? Well, for one, Ichiro got the start against a lefty. How many left-handed hitters get their once-in-a-while start against a lefty? He proceeded to get a hit against said southpaw and then later added a booming double off a righty reliever. That’s equally important, if you understand (many now do) the importance of being able to extend at-bats in today’s pitch-count world.
Simply put, Ichiro was tremendous Thursday night against the Astros.
His first at-bat was a six-pitch gem, culminating with a full-count single to left in that classic Ichiro way – a bail-out swing grounder between short and third. His second at-bat also lasted six pitches, including two two-strike foul balls, before grounding out to first.
He then slashed a double to left center on the fifth pitch of his third at-bat. He would later bust it from second base on Yangervis Solarte’s mile-high single in front of the mound. In today’s game, where running hard often seems optional, how many guys would have scored on such a play? The answer is not very many, even with two outs.
Ichiro took a called strike three in his final at-bat, but, again, he saw six pitches, capping his night of making opposing pitchers work.
In all, Ichiro saw 23 pitches, got two hits, and ran the bases like a genius.
SO, WHAT IS ALL THIS TRADE TALK ABOUT?
During a late spring training game against the Phillies, the Yankees’ TV announcers discussed the fact that Ichiro was being showcased because Philadelphia needed a center fielder. On Thursday night, during an Ichiro at-bat, it was discussed on air that Ichiro could eventually be traded.
But why do that?
The Yankees’ starting outfield seems to be Gardner in left, Ellsbury in center and Beltran in right. And that is an excellent major league outfield. Soriano may or may not be considered the fourth outfielder depending on what aspect of the game you’re looking at. He certainly is not close to being the defensive force the other three are.
But let’s take a look at the starters. Ellsbury played 134 games last season and 74 in 2012. Gardner played 145 last season and 16 in 2012. Beltran, who will be 37 this month, played in 145 games last season and 151 in 2012. Soriano, who has played in a solid 151 games in each of the last two seasons, is 38 and much better off as a designated hitter.
Ichiro? Well, don’t let the fact that he is 40 fool you. He played in 150 games last season and, in 2010, 2011 and 2012, he missed a total of one game in those three seasons. His workout and preparation regimens are legendary. His ability to stretch and stay in shape is unlike that of any other player.
The bottom line is Ellsbury and Gardner are fragile and Beltran (at 37) and Soriano (at 38) are actually “older” than Ichiro (at 40).
SURE, ICHIRO ISN’T WHAT HE USED TO BE, BUT …
Ichiro doesn’t throw as he once did, but he still has a very good arm. He’s not doing the “Spider-man” thing by climbing walls anymore, but he’s still a vey good fielder. He’s not a .325-plus hitter anymore, but just watch his approach (like Thursday night). He will be fine as a hitter if given a real opportunity. He can still run (20-for-24 on stolen base attempts last season).
And once in a while he can still, in the right situation, jerk one out of the park, particularly at Yankee Stadium.
So, on balance, Ichiro is not the superstar he once was, but he is still a very good player who can certainly help the Yankees.
To drastically reduce his playing time or to trade him, absent something incredible — and unlikely — coming back the Yankees’ way, would be a big mistake.
And, frankly, it’s possible one of these fragile and/or old outfielders will suffer some kind of time-consuming injury during the season. It’s not like they are all career iron-men.
The Yankees should not trade this first-ballot Hall of Famer. He’s probably still better than even they think. All he needs is a chance to prove it.
Follow Steve on Twitter at @NYSportsPlus
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