While Ichiro has lost a step, his speed is still just slightly behind Gardner’s. He has stolen fifteen bases in seventeen attempts and stole forty just last year. Look for him to run more often with the Yankees. Both Ichiro and Gardner have been .260 hitters at this point in their careers. Gardner’s career batting average is .261. Brett Gardner walks more than Ichiro ever has as his .355 career 0n-base percentage and eleven percent walk rate attest. But when Ichiro was in his prime, he hit enough to mask his lack of walks. Ichiro’s career on-base percentage of .366 is higher than Gardner’s. So let’s say that in the best case scenario, Ichiro hits .300 for the rest of the season for the Yankees. That should put him a just a little behind what could have been expected with Gardner’s OBP.
Slugging is perhaps a wash between the two. Ichiro’s slugging this season sits at .353. Gardner’s career slugging percentage is .355. No perceptible difference there. Ichiro’s career slugging is .414, but those days are probably over at this stage of his career. So, if–and granted, it is a big if–Ichiro can bat around .300, he will lose perhaps ten to fifteen points of OPS compared to Gardner. And Ichiro could have one last great run as a player. That is at least what the Yankees hope in all this.
The obvious statement here is that Ichiro cannot replace Brett Gardner’s defense. Brett Gardner has been the premier fielding left fielder in the game for two seasons. But Gardner is not going to be around. The key here is how much better Ichiro will be than Andruw Jones and Raul Ibanez in left. Jones is still admired when he can get to a ball. But let’s face it, Andruw Jones runs at about the same speed as Mark Teixeira at this point. There was a ball hit in foul territory in last night’s game and Jones couldn’t get there if he called a cab. Gardner would have had it. Ichiro probably would have had it too. And Ichiro will surely be a fielding upgrade against Raul Ibanez.
Many have been wondering why Ichiro will play left instead of right. After all, Nick Swisher has not been throwing the ball well this season (he has a ring finger problem) and a strong arm is required in right. We all know what kind of arm Ichiro has. But someone on Twitter made a good point. Left field in Yankee Stadium requires an outfielder that can cover much more ground than right field. In light of that logic, the position makes much more sense.
Summing this all up, you have to leave Brett Gardner out of the equation on evaluating this deal. He is not going to play, so it’s not like either/or. While Ichiro’s offensive game has suffered the last two seasons, there is the carrot stick that being in a stronger lineup and in a pennant race can rouse Ichiro’s offensive game up a ratchet or three. That will be a key to how this works out and that is what the Yankees are betting on here. They gain better defense (at least on paper) in left over the combination of Ibanez and Jones. The Yankees gain speed again at the bottom of the lineup. And if the Yankees placed their bet correctly, it only cost them $2.2 million and the loss of two prospects that probably did not figure in their long-range plans. The trade was a smart move and could even turn into a brilliant one if Ichiro has anything left in his bat the rest of the season.