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Trade Retrospective: Mariners trade Ichiro Suzuki to the Yankees

The most interesting part of this trade is simply that it involved Ichiro Suzuki.

Los Angeles Dodgers v Seattle Mariners Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

For the third straight offseason, BtBS is looking back on some of the biggest trades from years past. Check out all the entries here.

At the same time that the Tigers acquired Omar Infante and Aníbal Sánchez, the Mariners traded away one of the best and most popular players in team history, Ichiro Suzuki. The Yankees acquired him in exchange for relievers D.J. Mitchell and Danny Farquhar. As luck would have it, the Yankees happened to be the visiting team at the time of the trade, so all Ichiro had to do was change dugouts.

In this trade retrospective series, trades will be evaluated based on what was known at the time. That is the only fair, logical way to evaluate trades and strip luck out of the equation: process over results. Having said that, we will still take a look at how the trade worked out for both parties.

The Deal

The Mariners were going nowhere fast. At the time of the trade, they were in last place with for the third straight season with a record of 42-56 and 16.5 games behind the first place Rangers. Only the Royals and Twins had worse records in the AL. In fact, the Mariners had avoided the cellar only twice since 2004. To that point, Ichiro only had one year where he played in the postseason.

One of the biggest problems the Mariners were facing was that they were in the midst of a multi-year stretch where their OBP was one of the worst in the league. Ichiro Suzuki was also not helping things in that department, hitting only .261/.288/.353. His drop in production at the plate was not a new development, either. He hit .272/.310/.335 the year before. Even though he still brought value defensively and on the basepaths, it was not nearly enough to make up for a 77 wRC+ from a corner outfielder.

As with newly elected Hall of Famer Vladimir Guerrero, Ichiro never walked much but was able to excel at the plate thanks to his elite contact rates and pure hitting ability. Unfortunately, as his batting average dropped in 2011, so did his walk rates. That is a really bad combination for OBP.

It is easy to assume that Ichiro started pressing at the plate, but his plate discipline numbers do not back up that assertion. He was not swinging more often at pitches outside the zone, and in fact was actually making more contact on such pitches. He was seeing more strikes, though, which would obviously affect his walk rate.

The Mariners had a problem. One of the most beloved players in baseball was 38 years old, declining rapidly, and was in a contract year. Even if some of their young players started developing and the team became more competitive, it would be hard to defend opening up the checkbook to bring back an aging, below-average hitting corner outfielder. Mariners fans loved Ichiro, but the team also had not been to the playoffs since 2001.

From a public relations perspective, trading Ichiro was a better option than choosing not to re-sign him. As odd as it might sound, that was a better rationale for the trade than the return of two non-prospects.

At first glance, this looked like a raw deal for Ichiro himself. He was leaving the only MLB team he had ever known, one with a fan base that loved him, in order to move to left field and start hitting at the bottom of the lineup, in a city 3,000 miles away. This move added another five to six hours to what was already a long flight to his home country of Japan.

If the Mariners had traded Ichiro against his will, it likely would have negated any PR benefits. But Ichiro had a full no-trade clause through his 10-and-5 rights. The fact of the matter was that he wanted the trade.

ESPN’s Wallace Matthews reported that the Yankees likely would not have had interest in the declining future Hall of Famer if it were not for his name value. Yankees scouts believed that Ichiro was ”bored” and “playing down to his surroundings.” Both the Yankees and Ichiro believed that a change of scenery was for the best, which is why he was willing to make such concessions just to get out of Seattle.

The Yankees were getting good production from Curtis Granderson in center field and Nick Swisher in right field, but not so much in left field. Raúl Ibáñez was getting the bulk of the playing time in left field, and he was not even a league-average hitter. To make matters worse, Ibáñez was one of the worst defensive outfielders in the majors. Coincidentally, Mariners fans were well aware of this fact from back when he was on the team, so the need was pretty obvious.

At the very least, Ichiro could be a defensive replacement that could provide some much needed depth. If his offense could improve at all, even when accounting for the vast difference between Safeco Field and Yankees Stadium, the gigantic difference between his defensive and baserunning and that of Ibáñez would make him a better option.

The Yankees paid so little for Ichiro that it made the deal all-upside for the team. Ichiro was owed about $8.5 million for the rest of the year, but that is a drop in the bucket for the Yankees, who were competing at the time.

The Results

The change of scenery paid off. Ichiro hit .322/.340/.454 for the rest of the season. The funny thing is that his walk rate dropped to an A.J. Pierzynski-esque 2.1 percent. Also, ironically, the defensive metrics did not like his fielding. Perhaps he had trouble adjusting to Yankees Stadium. Most likely, though, it was just a small sample size aberration.

The Yankees finished the season in first place by two games. We can’t completely credit Ichiro for that narrow first place finish, but he was certainly impactful. The Yankees went on to have an unremarkable postseason run. They barely beat the Orioles in a five-game ALDS, only to be swept by the Tigers in the ALCS.

Ichiro’s resurgence in New York led the Yankees to re-sign him to a two-year, $12 million deal. Unfortunately, they did not get the player they saw after the trade.

In 2013, Ichiro regressed back to his late-Mariners self, hitting .262/.297/.342. Thankfully, his defense and baserunning easily made him worth $6 million to the Yankees. He improved in 2014, hitting .284/.324/.340, but that is still a below average line, which is well below the standards for a corner outfielder. As his defense appeared to diminish, too, so did his playing time. The Yankees let him go in free agency after the 2014 season.

Ichiro spent the subsequent three years in Miami, mostly in a bench role. He hit a combined .256/.315/.325 over that span and would be a sub-replacement level player if it were not for his defense.

The Marlins declined to re-sign Ichiro so he is currently a free agent, contemplating a return to Japan. Even though he is 44 years old, he does not seem to have any plans to retire.

Out of the two players sent to Seattle, D.J. Mitchell was viewed as the best chance to be any kind of major league, and even then only barely. To this day, the only major league action he has ever seen is four relief appearances with the Yankees prior to the trade. The Mariners designated him for assignment in April 2013. He landed with the Mets, but he did not last long with them either. Mitchell spent the 2014-2016 seasons playing unaffiliated ball in the Atlantic League. There are no reports of him playing anywhere since then.

Danny Farquhar saw a lot more time in the majors. He made 46 appearances with the Mariners in 2013 and had an odd season. He gave up only two home runs and struck out an outstanding 34.7 percent of batters faced, but he had a 4.69 RA9 for the year. The reason for that was a low strand rate and a .336 BABIP, both which could have been the result of the Mariners’ terrible defense. He had so much working against him that was beyond his control, which is why his 2.00 DRA was so much lower than his run average.

Sure enough, Farquhar enjoyed a lot of positive regression in 2014. His strikeout rate dropped to 28 percent, but his run average improved to a 2.92 RA9. It was easily the best run average of his career. Unfortunately, his performance dropped off considerably in 2015 with a 5.82 RA9. He ended up as a throw-in in the Logan Morrison trade.

Farquhar was a passable middle reliever during his time in Tampa Bay in 2016. However, his walk rate shot up to over 14 percent in 2017, which led to him getting cut at the end of June. A month later he signed a minor league contract with the White Sox. His walk rate came back to earth, thankfully, but he still was not much more than an end of the bench reliever.

Yankees Results

Remaining Control WAR Salary (M)
Remaining Control WAR Salary (M)
Ichiro Suzuki 0 0.2 $8.5
Baseball Reference

The reason why Ichiro’s WAR is so low is because, as mentioned before, the defensive metrics rated him poorly. If you want to wave that off as a small sample size error, then it should be noted that he was worth 1.0 oWAR. The trade did lead to the Yankees bringing him back on a cheap two-year deal. Ichiro was not terribly productive, but it was fair value for what little they paid.

Mariners Results

Remaining Control WAR Salary (M)
Remaining Control WAR Salary (M)
Danny Farquhar 6 0.4 $1.1
Baseball Reference, Spotrac

Mitchell never made the majors, and the Mariners got the more than they could have hoped for from Farquhar. They got as much as in terms of performance as one could have reasonably expected in return for an aging corner outfielder.

The Yankees got good value for how little they paid in prospects. As for the Mariners and their fans, it must have felt awful to lose Ichiro, even if it was the right baseball move. At some point, Ms fans will see the day Ichiro is enshrined in Cooperstown. I sincerely hope that the Mariners make it back to the postseason before then.

. . .

Luis Torres is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. He is a medicinal chemist by day, baseball analyst by night. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chemtorres21.