Ichiro Suzuki To Yanks & Other MLB Trade Deadline Moves

The Detroit Tigers and the New York Yankees made significant moves yesterday as the busy part of baseball’s midsummer trading season has one week left. The Tigers upgraded their starting rotation and middle infield, while the Yankees acquired one of the game’s icons in Ichiro Suzuki. TheSportsNotebook evaluates both trades and how the new pieces will fit into their new teams…

Ichiro was moved to the Yankees in exchange for two minor-leaguers, D.J. Mitchell and Danny Faraquaher. Given how both these prospects are viewed by scouts, this a nice way of saying the Yanks got Ichiro for nothing—except for the couple million they’ll pay over the next couple months, which for the Yankees is the equivalent of pocket change. I’ve seen media reaction on this trade cover the gamut, with ESPN’s Buster Olney and John Kruk sounding skeptical while on the same network Aaron Boone and Rick Sutcliffe were a little more enthusiastic (then again, Sutcliffe’s enthusiastic about everything and everyone, so that tells us little). Where does the truth lie?

Based on the numbers the skeptics have a solid point. Suzuki’s on-base percentage is a measly .288 and he was also bad last year at .310. At 38 years old, he’s clearly in a very sharp career decline and he’s never hit for power. Even in his MVP year of 2001 he only hit eight home runs, and he’s only topped 30 doubles twice in his career, surprising for someone with his speed. If he’s not able to hit the ball in the alleys then even that short right-field porch in Yankee Stadium isn’t going to help him. Olney is correct in noting that while Ichiro plays good defense and still runs well, there’s a lot of players who do that. I would also point out that even though Nick Swisher’s being banged up is getting attention in the media, it’s not a long-term problem (Swisher isn’t even on the disabled list) and with a seven-game lead on Baltimore in the AL East the Yanks have only the long-term that is postseason play to worry about. When Swisher is healthy, do you take playing time from Andruw Jones or Raul Ibanez, each of whom have been better than Ichiro?

That’s the negative. The positive is that between the three vets above, Joe Girardi can juggle his lineup to get each player in the right spots to succeed and I don’t take seriously the concern that doing this to an icon like Ichiro would be a political problem for the manager. Girardi’s done a solid job getting accomplished vets to accept their roles and I see no reason to think Ichiro wouldn’t be a team player if he continues to show he shouldn’t play every day for a contender. The other positive is this and it annoys me to no end—these kinds of moves always seem to work out for the Yankees. It’s as though the arrival in the Bronx seems to inspire and motivate the veteran—which is an indictment of the professionalism he brought to his previous employer, but I just envision Suzuki slotted in the ninth spot of the batting order and hitting .300 in the postseason while effectively flipping the lineup over. S

So by the numbers, this trade doesn’t add up for New York, but there are some intangibles to suggest that they’ll land on their feet and the cost was non-existent.

Detroit’s dealing with top pitching prospect Jacob Turner as the lead component of a three-player package to Miami for starting pitcher Anibal Sanchez and second baseman Omar Infante was less media-friendly, but more baseball-noteworthy. Sanchez isn’t a great pitcher. He’s never reached the heights he found in 2006 when he posted a 2.83 ERA and threw a no-hitter. Shoulder problems set him back the next two seasons, but he’s made his way back and with an ERA that runs in the high 3s, he’s been a respectable starter for the last 2 ½ years. While he now has to deal with American League lineups, he also shifts from hitter-friendly Miami to a pitcher’s paradise in Detroit’s Comerica Park. Furthermore, he’s only asked to be the #3 or #4 starter. The Tigers would ideally like to see Doug Fister stabilize the #2 spot behind Justin Verlander, and then Sanchez and Max Scherzer can duke it out to be the third man in line.  As for Infante, he spent 2002-07 in Detroit, which included their American League pennant run of 2006 and then found his bat in Atlanta during the 2009-10 seasons when he had on-base percentages around .360. But the bat disappeared again in Miami and he’s only an average defender. It’s a mark of how bad Detroit’s been at second base that Infante still represents a significant improvement.

The price Detroit paid was not negligible. Turner is a top pitching prospect, but when the 21-year-old was rocked in his first major league outings this year, the win-now Tigers felt like they had to include him in a trade package. The up side is that Detroit still has another top young starter in development with Drew Smyly, so they had some room to bargain. The other two players, catcher Rob Brantly and pitcher Brian Flynn are wild-cards—each has talent, but significant mechanical issues that have prevented sustained success at the minor-league level. So while this price isn’t negligible, nor is it prohibitive for a team that’s already leveraged the future for the present.

Detroit’s strengthening of the rotation makes them again the clear favorite in the AL Central, a division they led by one game over the Chicago White Sox. The White Sox strengthened themselves with the addition of Brett Myers, but I think the strength of that acquisition will be felt over the next year-plus, as Myers is still under contract next season, while Sanchez is in his walk year. For the balance of 2012, Detroit is again the team to beat in the AL Central.

But is that enough? Detroit might have survived in the AL Central without this trade and they didn’t drop $214 million on Prince Fielder to say a quick goodbye in the Division Series, or even lose again the League Championship Series. And this is perhaps the biggest negative on the deal. Is Sanchez, an offspeed pitcher who works to contact, really equipped to go win a postseason start against the Rangers or Yankees? If the opponent is the Angels, is he a real counter to C.J. Wilson or Dan Haren? I don’t see this as a high-impact pickup likely to impact Detroit’s postseason success. If the only goal is to win the AL Central, it makes sense, but everything about Detroit tells us they want more. And by that measuring stick I wonder first if they are done dealing, and second, if they might have gotten a more suitable package than what they got from Miami.