The New York Yankees acquired two- time batting champion Ichiro Suzuki from the Seattle Mariners, adding a regular left fielder and speed threat for the rest of the season to replace the injured Brett Gardner.
The 38-year-old Ichiro went 1-for-4 with a single in his Yankees debut last night as New York snapped a season-high four- game losing streak with a 4-1 win against his former team in Seattle. He started in right field for the injured Nick Swisher and batted eighth in the Yankees’ lineup.
After 11 1/2 seasons in Seattle, Ichiro said he requested a trade following the All-Star break. He went from a team that is in last place in the American League West division to the team with the best record in Major League Baseball at 58-38.
“I had a strong sense that I’d like to be stimulated by changing my environment,” Ichiro said through an interpreter at a pre-game news conference. “I felt I shouldn’t remain on a team that had so many young players. I’m grateful to the Mariners for accepting my decision.”
The Yankees sent pitching prospects D.J. Mitchell and Danny Farquhar to the Mariners for Ichiro and an undisclosed amount of cash.
Ichiro was greeted by applause when he headed to the outfield in a Yankee uniform in the bottom of the first inning and received another standing ovation when he first came to bat in the third inning. Ichiro took off his helmet and bowed to the Mariners’ fans twice before ripping a single up the middle and then stealing second base.
Ichiro wore No. 31 -- Dave Winfield’s number while with the Yankees -- instead of the 51 he had on his uniform in Seattle. All-Star outfielder Bernie Williams most recently wore No. 51 over his 16-year career with the Yankees. Ichiro popped up, grounded out and lined out in his final three at-bats. He also caught a pop up in right field for the game’s final out.
“It’s very special to put on the Yankees uniform and especially being at Safeco where I played,” Ichiro said in a televised interview with the Yankees Entertainment & Sports Network. “I was a little worried, I didn’t know what the fans were going to react to, but they were very kind.”
With Gardner on the disabled list, the Yankees have primarily used Andruw Jones and Raul Ibanez in left field this season, while Dewayne Wise, Darnell McDonald and Jayson Nix are among those who also have seen time at the position.
Ichiro has won 10 Gold Glove awards for his defense since joining the Mariners in 2001, when he became the first Japanese- born non-pitcher in major league history. He won American League batting titles in 2001 and 2004, has led or been tied for the major league lead in hits seven times, and is second among active players with 439 career stolen bases.
“I’ve had people say to me, ‘You have the best record, you’re in first place, you’ve played extremely well, how exactly do you miss Gardy?” Yankees manager Joe Girardi said of Gardner. “Well, he’s the one guy who creates and causes havoc on our club that we haven’t had. There are days that you miss that. Sometimes you need to create a run.”
The Yankees traveled to Seattle after losing four straight games in Oakland by one run.
While the Yankees lead the majors with 151 homers, Gardner’s injury left them without a player who had 96 stolen bases over the previous two seasons. Gardner led the AL with 49 steals last year, when he hit .259 with seven home runs, 36 runs batted in and 87 runs scored.
“The Yankees have become a ballclub too dependent upon home runs and that brand of baseball leads to losses in the first round” of the playoffs, said Wayne McDonnell, an associate professor of sports management at New York University. “The Yankees need someone who can get a single in a key situation late in a ballgame and can run from first to third on a hit with ease. Ichiro is the perfect ballplayer for this type of role.”
Ichiro had hit .261 for the Mariners this year, his lowest batting average in 12 MLB seasons and 61 points below his career average of .322. While he played his usual right field position last night, Girardi said he’ll primarily be used in left field. Ichiro said the last time he played left field was at Yankee Stadium during the 2001 AL Championship Series between the Mariners and Yankees.
Ichiro is in the final season of a five-year, $90 million contract and the YES Network reported that the Yankees will pay him $2.25 million for the remainder of the 2012 season.
McDonnell, who created the “Business of Baseball” course at New York University, said the Yankees saved the Mariners from “great embarrassment” when Ichiro’s contract was to expire after the season. He also said that both Ichiro and the Yankees know the experiment will end at some point in October and Gardner, 28, will be back in left field next season.
“With the Mariners in the process of rebuilding, they couldn’t offer Ichiro a lucrative contract and it could have led to the demise of a fruitful relationship,” McDonnell said in an e-mail. “Both Ichiro and the Mariners know the future value of their relationship relies heavily on his post-playing days and his entrance into the Hall of Fame as a Mariner.”
In terms of marketing, McDonnell said that Ichiro will provide a temporary spike for the Yankees in television ratings, apparel purchases and ticket sales.
In 95 games for the Mariners this year, Ichiro had four home runs, while scoring 49 runs, driving in 28 runs and stealing 15 bases. In 2011, Ichiro’s .272 batting average marked his first major league season below .300.
Ichiro entered last night’s game with 330 more hits than any other major leaguer since his debut in 2001, when he won the AL Most Valuable Player and Rookie of the Year awards.
“I’ve admired him from afar for years and I’m looking forward to the opportunity to playing with him,” Yankees shortstop and captain Derek Jeter said last night.
In exchange for Ichiro, the Mariners received a pair of 25- year-old right-handers in Mitchell and Farquhar.
Mitchell saw his first major league experience this year, allowing two runs over 4 2/3 innings in four relief appearances for the Yankees. He’s spent most of the season at Triple-A Scranton Wilkes-Barre, going 6-4 with a 5.04 earned run average in 15 games, including 14 starts.
Farquhar was acquired off waivers from Oakland last month and was 1-0 with four saves in a combined seven minor league relief appearances for the Yankees’ Triple-A and Double-A Trenton affiliates.
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