It's Still Important To Stay Grounded With Ichiro & Gardner

(Syndicated from An A-Blog for A-Rod)

ESPN NY's Spring Training countdown series got off to a pretty crummy start, but he's been a little better lately.  Earlier this Sunday morning, Wally Matthews took a break from handing out fictional punishments on Alex Rodriguez to discuss the 2013 outfield, which is actually a worthwhile topic.  The Yankees are looking at a serious offensive downgrade from that group this year, and the ability of Brett Gardner and Ichiro Suzuki to be productive in their ways could be a big determining factor in the level of success this season's team can have.  Wally, to his credit, thinks Ichiro and Gardner can get the job done, and maybe they can.  But Wally's reasoning for why leaves much to be desired.

Matthews gave reasons to be optimistic about the slap-hitting duo, citing their strengths.  But in doing so, he made the mistake of looking at Ichiro from a high level, where the overall numbers are still very good.  Matthews references Ichiro's career .365 OBP, a value higher than that of the departed Nick Swisher, and his 38 SB per year career average as reasons for why Ichiro can be productive.  Ichiro is 39 years old and has been on the decline for a while.  Even with his strong .342 wOBA stretch in pinstripes, Ichiro still finished 2012 with just a .307 OBP and hasn't had a truly elite OBP season since 2009.  It's also worth mentioning that he hasn't scored over 90 runs since '08.  The truth still is that Ichiro hasn't been an elite offensive player for a while now, and has hardly been average the last few seasons.  His career numbers can't be looked at as a basis for expectations.

Gardner's strengths are also based on his strong on-base and base stealing skills, but as a player still in his prime at age 29 his career numbers can be given more weight.  He may not be as good as he was in 2010, but even at a season below that he still had a solid .345 OBP in 2011.  Gardner's age or production trends aren't the concern with him, but health is.  He's always been the type to get incredibly banged up over the course of a full season, making him a weaker offensive players when the games count most, and he only played in 16 games in 2012.  And as better as I feel about Gardner's possible production ceiling compared to Ichiro's, Brett doesn't have a 100-runs scored season under his belt either.

Too many Yankee fans made and continue to make the mistake of reading too much into Ichiro's strong team debut after last year's trade, and looking at him that way can create unrealistic expectations.  Looking at his career totals instead of his recent history can also create unrealistic expectations, as can ignoring Brett Gardner's injury history.  It was true what Matthews said about Gardner and Ichiro being very good defensively, and there will be value in that.  But to expect both of them to provide consistent above-average offense or better because they're fast is a stretch, and to expect them to make up for the loss of Swish probably is as well.

Lack Of Logic In The Ichiro Situation

(The following is being syndicated from An A-Blog for A-Rod)

While most of the baseball world was buzzing about the Josh Hamilton signing yesterday afternoon, there was a significant development in the Ichiro Suzuki case, one that doesn't make a whole lot of sense for the Yankees in terms of how they've approached and executed their offseason plan to date.  After multiple reports of Ichiro receiving 2-year offers from other teams came out, Joel Sherman reported that the Yankees were "resigned" to the fact that they now HAD to make a guaranteed 2-year offer as well in order to bring Ichiro back.  I know this isn't going to sit well with my man James on the AB4AR Page, but that line of thinking and decision making by the Yankee brass is questionable at best, and borderline ludicrous at worst.

First of all, the Yankees aren't resigned to anything.  They've put themselves in a position where they don't have as many options available to them to replace Nick Swisher in right field, at least not within the constraints they've set for themselves.  But it's not like Ichiro is the ONLY right fielder available and he's certainly not the best outfielder available.

To that point, the whole idea of breaking the "1-year contracts only" rule for Ichiro, a 39-year-old player clearly in decline and who may be best suited as a part-time platoon player, is where the train really goes off the tracks.  His .342 wOBA in 67 games with the Yankees this past season was excellent, no doubt about that.  But that doesn't make the year and a half of below-average production before that disappear and doesn't change the fact that Ichiro has been in a pretty steady decline since 2009.  The Yankees could have retained Russell Martin, arguably the best all-around catcher available, with a 2-year deal a few weeks back and they didn't even make him an offer.  Now they're willing to make that same 2-year offer to a player who's probably not as good as Martin at this stage in his career and who's definitely a helluva lot easier to replace than Martin.

I just don't get it.  The Yankees' number 1 goal this offseason and next is to create and retain a high level of payroll flexibility to allow them to get under the $189 million ceiling.  How does guaranteeing a 2nd year to what will be a 40-YEAR-OLD OUTFIELDER next season help that cause???  The boys over at NoMaas tweeted this theory last night and it's a thought that crossed my mind as well- if this is about Ichiro chasing 3,000 hits and the Steinbrenners wanting him to be in pinstripes when he does it, then that's completely asinine and probably the final sign that George's boys don't really care about the baseball side of owning the Yankees.

While I was always a bigger proponent of the Yankees seeking a younger, more well-rounded option for right field next season, I accepted the fact that Ichiro was likely going to be part of the Yankee outfield in 2013 once the Yankees' offseason strategy became clear.  And I've admitted that there are plenty of positives that could come from having Ichiro as part of the team next season.  But him getting a guaranteed multi-year offer from New York over other players at more important positions of need, and better players who play the same position he does, is just not a good baseball decision and that's a fact.

Looking Forward To Brett Gardner's Return

(The following is being syndicated from An A-Blog for A-Rod)

Brett Gardner became the first of the Yankees' 5 remaining arbitration eligible players to avoid it yesterday and sign a new deal for 2013, guaranteeing that no matter what warm body the Yankees stick in right field next season, they'll at least have their 2 returning starters in center and left.  As it was with Michael Pineda and Mariano Rivera, 2012 was basically a lost season for Gardner.  He had just 37 plate appearances in 16 games before suffering the elbow injury that eventually ended his season.  But Gardner swung the bat well in those 37 PA, hitting .323/.417/.387 and scoring 7 runs.  The figures of Gardner's new deal have yet to be disclosed, but with him playing so few games last year I can't imagine he'll get much of a raise from the $2.8 mil he made, if he even gets a raise at all.  With what he did in 2010 and 2011, the possibility of Gardner coming back and playing a full season at that price tag is exciting and could end up being very beneficial to the Yankees.

Sure, Gardner's stat line from 2012 has to be taken with a huge grain of SSS salt.  There's nothing you can definitively draw from 37 PA.  But it is worth pointing out that Gardner's solid slash line was consistent with the type of offensive production he's put forth in the previous 2 years.  It was an exaggeration of Gardner's offensive makeup- high on-base guy with great speed, minimal power, and whose BABIP heavily influences where his batting average ends up- and that makeup is going to come in handy in next year's lineup.  The Yankees lack speed and they lack consistent contact bats, and Gardner brings both of those skills to the table.  My days of hoping for Gardner to develop a little more power to his swing are probably over, but a return to his .270/.360/.370-style of offensive production would be incredibly valuable, possibly at the top of the lineup early in the season if Jeter isn't ready to go.

And while we're on the topic of value, let's not forget Gardner's elite defense.  He posted some of the highest defensive metric ratings in baseball in 2010 and 2011, won the Fielding Bible Award for left field in those years, and could have finally gotten his due with a Gold Glove if he didn't get hurt last year.  Remember that Gardner hurt himself making a great sliding catch in left field, this is his calling card.  There have been talks about switching Gardner and Curtis Granderson in the outfield this season and moving Gardner to center field, something that would only increase his value to the team and make the Yankees better defensively.

This constant mentioning of value is a subtle reminder that Gardner had been one of the most productive outfielders in terms of fWAR before getting injured last season.  He had 6.2 in 2010, 5.2 in 2011, and although there's no way to guarantee he would have repeated that this past season, he was certainly on the right path with his early offensive performance and his strong defense and baserunning.  Based on those WAR values, Gardner was worth over $23 million in each of his 2 full seasons and he was giving that level of production to the Yankees for league minimum cost.  Now he'll come back after a year off, fully rested and fully healthy, with a chance to do it again.

Gardner's playing style isn't exactly conducive to staying healthy, but the fact that he didn't take a full season's worth of wear and tear this year should make him incredibly fresh coming into 2013.  And a fresh Brett Gardner playing center field and possibly leading off at a salary below the league average is a dangerous Brett Gardner, especially if he can manage to dive fewer times and not foul so many balls of his feet.  For all the talk about how the Yankees are going to fill their roster and stay competitive while tightening their payroll belt, Gardner stands as a reminder for how they can do it.  He's a cheap, homegrown player who uses his speed and patience to create runs offensively and save them defensively.  Brett Gardner can be tremendously valuable to the Yankees in 2013, and I can't wait to see him back on the field.