9/1/2014 9:50 A.M. ET
Ichiro carving his own niche with '14 Yanks
A tough decision looms, as the Hall-bound outfielder has again proven his worth
By Jake Kring-Schreifels / MLB.com
NEW YORK -- It's Feb. 19, before the start of Ichiro Suzuki's final season of a two-year, $13 million contract with the Yankees, and he's fielding a barrage of questions from reporters.
They're asking him how he's going to fit on a team with five other outfielders on the roster. They're asking if he's angry about it, if he'll make the squad, if he's thought about being traded, if he'd prefer to play somewhere else -- somewhere he knows he could play regularly, like he always has.
"I'm not going to fall for questions like that," says Ichiro, too wise for the press entering his 14th Major League season. "I'm going to have to find a place for myself, but I've worked hard this offseason. ... Hopefully, those things will come together."
Cut to six months later, and Ichiro, as he has done his whole career, has found a place for himself.
Take Aug. 24, for example. Brett Gardner had a sore ankle. Jacoby Ellsbury needed a day off. The Yankees were facing dominant White Sox left-hander Chris Sale, so manager Joe Girardi penciled Ichiro into center field for just the second time all season, making him the only left-handed hitter in the lineup, batting the veteran eighth.
Sale carved through New York's order until the sixth inning, when a few errors and walks turned a shutout into a collapse. With the Yankees down by a run and the bases loaded, Ichiro -- as he always does -- extended his right arm, slightly altered his sleeve and lined an 84-mph first-pitch changeup into right-center field, plating the go-ahead run.
It was the first RBI by a left-handed hitter off Sale since last August, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. After the game, Ichiro needed no interpreter to respond, "Amazing."
The adjective might be appropriate for most of Ichiro's 2014 season, if not his entire career. With about half as many at bats as he had 2013, he's hitting .285 with a .327 on base percentage, his highest OBP since 2010. His .358 batting average versus lefties qualifies as amazing, too, thanks to how long his bat stays in the hitting zone, which allows for one-handed singles like the one he hit off Brett Oberholtzer in mid-August.
To cynics, Ichiro's improved numbers have merely been the product of good luck, coming in the form of sputtering and eventually dismissed veterans (Alfonso Soriano and Kelly Johnson) and injuries (Carlos Beltran). But even as he competes for time now with Martin Prado and Zelous Wheeler, Ichiro hasn't so much been a last resort as a player to lean on throughout the season.
"When he hasn't played, he's been a very good pinch-hitter for us," said Girardi of Ichiro, whose contract with Yankees expires after the season. "If he doesn't play, you have that speed element on the bench. The fact that we've been able to play him all over the place has been helpful."
Just how helpful will be an item on general manager Brian Cashman's list of offseason decisions to address. But considering the group of injury-prone players above the age of 30 that the Yankees field, the durable Ichiro, 40, might be worth another short-term investment.
"I don't really view him as a part-time player," said fellow outfielder Gardner. "He's obviously capable of playing every day. One thing he brings every day is he plays real good defense, and it's something that probably gets overlooked a little bit. Even as he's gotten up there in age, he still plays really good defense."
That's been on display sporadically this season, albeit not as prominently as during Ichiro's days in Seattle. The statistics aren't particularly glowing for him in right field, specifically according to advanced metrics like defensive runs saved (0) and ultimate zone rating (-.1), which factor players' range and arm strength, resulting in one measurement relative to league average. For reference, so far this season, Atlanta's Jason Heyward leads all outfielders with 34 defensive runs saved, though Gold Glove Award winner Adam Jones accounts for only two.
Ichiro's speed on the basepaths (11 stolen bases) down the first-base line (22 infield hits) also translate to the field, where he routinely makes running catches like his grab of a ninth-inning gapper off the bat of James Loney after he replaced Beltran in right field on Aug. 17.
The reality is that Ichiro's power, now mostly only displayed in batting practice, continues to dwindle. More hits -- like an Aug. 26 chopper up the middle that moved him past Hank Aaron on the all-time singles list -- are the result of speed and pinpoint bat placement. Another season with the Yankees, however, will likely be met with more platoon situations. It might mean the club won't be as patient after a poor month (like his .224 July average) as it was this season, when he rebounded with a .352 average in August.
Choosing to return with the Yankees may delay Ichiro's pursuit of 3,000 hits in Major League Baseball, a feat that may be easier for him to achieve on a National League club, though it's something Ichiro -- currently at 2,824 hits -- says he's not thinking about.
"If he gets the opportunity to play every day, he'll definitely [get 3,000] hands down," said Curtis Granderson, Ichiro's locker buddy with the Yankees last season. "That's going to be the key. He's just got to be in a situation where he can play every day, and there's no reason why he shouldn't."
That's for Cashman to ponder. While Ichiro's resume -- American League MVP Award winner, 10-time All-Star, 10-time Gold Glove Award winner -- remains impressive, he's no longer expected to dominate as he once did. Still, he continues to represent Japan in New York with pride, as Hideki Matsui did a decade ago and Masahiro Tanaka does today.
That may mean Ichiro will have to face the same questions from reporters again next February, likely after more months dedicated to workouts and conditioning, repeating that wherever he ends up, he'll "have to find a place for himself," just like he always has.
"He's as prepared as anyone I've ever seen," said Gardner.
"It's a guy I never count out."
Jake Kring-Schreifels is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.