J-SLANTED: When a Star Takes on a New Role

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By JORDAN IKEDA

Ichiro Suzuki in pinstripes.

I actually don’t find that unusual at all. In fact, I’ve long thought a team like the Yankees would be the perfect landing spot for arguably the greatest Mariner in Seattle’s franchise history. I even suggested a trade to the Bronx two years ago before his skills took a painfully noticeable turn for the worse.

The surprising part of this whole trade is that Ichiro was the one who sought it out, the one who specifically asked for it, and the one who then agreed to play for the Yankees despite being presented with a clearly defined role—that of a role player.

He was told he would be moved to left field, despite never having played the position. He was told he would be inserted into the bottom of the lineup, despite never having hit outside of the top three spots. He was also told that he would not be an everyday player, something the Mariners brass hinted at, but never openly said or enforced.

For all of the wonderful things Ichiro has accomplished over his 12 MLB seasons—an American League MVP, AL Rookie of the Year, 10 All-Star appearances, 10 Gold Gloves, the all-time single season hits record, the all-time record with 10 consecutive seasons of 200 hits or more, two batting titles, and three silver slugger awards—the label “selfish” has clung to him like a bad cologne.

Whether this selfishness was more perceived than real, few can deny that Ichiro often displayed an inability, or unwillingness, to sacrifice personal stats for the good of the team.

No one can claim that about him moving forward.

Not only has the eccentric lefty accepted a lesser role in order to win, but by being the one to ask out, he saved Mariners’ owner Hiroshi Yamauchi from making a tough decision at the end of the year when his contract expired. Many believed Yamauchi would re-sign Ichiro and continue to pay him like a star, despite the fact that #51 really hasn’t played like an all-star since 2009. Re-upping Ichiro, who will be 39 in October, even at half of what he made this season ($17 million) would have been detrimental to the Mariners’ short- and long-term goals.

What the M’s need to do, and what they are now free to do, is to begin the rebuilding process in earnest—testing out their young players and seeing just exactly who can play in the Show.

The Yankees, still in first place, made this move because there is zero downside. They are bringing on a player with an impressive track record, having sacrificed two fringe prospects to get him, and will only be paying $2 million of his contract.

Despite a horrid 2011 campaign in which he hit under .300 for the first time in his career and an even worse 2012 campaign thus far, we are still talking about a man who averaged 220 hits while batting .330 for 10 consecutive seasons.

Ichiro has languished on a team that has finished fourth in the American League West seven of the past 10 years. He has been to the playoffs once—during his rookie season. With his skills (and perhaps a bit of his passion) clearly waning, moving to a winning organization—the winningest in fact—has clear motivational advantages.

Ichiro said as much, pointing out he has moved from last place to a team in first.

As for the man himself, he no longer carries the burden of being a franchise cornerstone. Instead, he can be just one of the guys. If we remember back to the 2009 World Baseball Classic—when Ichiro was just one of the guys—the end result was Ichiro knocking in the final run that secured Japan’s second consecutive WBC championship.

Out with the old, in with the new.  Ichiro has unquestionably been the best Asian-born position player in MLB history. But as he rides off into the sunset in pursuit of that elusive World Series ring, who is capable of filling his cleats?

While Norichika Aoki has had a terrific season, my money goes to the Cleveland Indians’ outfielder Chin Soo Choo. Asia’s only 20/20 man (he’s done it two times), Choo is a five-tool player who hits for average, decent power, and is excellent at taking walks. He runs fairly well and is a solid glove in outfield. He also has a career .858 OPS. For comparisons sake, Ichiro’s career OPS is .784.

Choo is currently hitting .293 with a .866 OPS, 12 homeruns and 10 stolen bases.

The Indians are 5-7 since the All-Star break and after a half season of looking to add a starting pitcher and a right-handed hitter, they find themselves looking to perhaps be sellers as the trade deadline rapidly draws near.

Choo, along with closer Chris Perez are still eligible for arbitration making them very attractive pieces.

Choo is eligible to become a free agent following the close of the 2012 season. Because he’s represented by Scott Boras who will price him out of the Indians comfort zone, Cleveland could and probably should move him while his value is high and while they can still get some solid pieces back.

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