Aside from a solid season from Brett Gardner, to go along with two awesome months from Alfonso Soriano, the Yankees' outfield in 2013 was mostly a mess. As a whole, Yankee outfielders hit .251/.309/.387 with an 89 wRC+. Part of that offensive ineptitude was Ichiro Suzuki's own doing, as the then 39-year-old hit .262/.297/.342 with a 71 wRC+ in 555 plate appearances. Because of this, the Yankees upgraded their outfield this winter by signing Jacoby Ellsbury and Carlos Beltran. With five outfielders in the mix, Ichiro was rumored to be on the way out. However, despite his shortcomings with the bat, there is a case to be made to keep Ichiro on the team
The Ichiro problem in 2013 began before the season even started. In fact, it began in the off-season heading up to 2013, when the "top of the Yankees' hierarchy demanded his re-signing." After hitting to a 90 OPS+ from 2011-2012, the "top of the Yankees' hierarchy" (*cough* Hal and Levine) gave Ichiro, who was on the wrong side of 38, a two-year deal and made him their everyday right fielder. Obviously, and predictably, that backfired. On the flip side though, Ichiro will not, barring a few injuries, be the regular right fielder in 2014, thankfully.
The 2014 outfield should mainly be Gardner in left, Ellsbury in center, and Beltran in right. They can have Soriano DH or play right field, where he has never played before, while Beltran DH's or just takes a day off altogether. This, of course, leaves no room for Ichiro. He's basically the fifth outfielder at this point, and most fifth outfielders are just late-inning defensive replacements and/or pinch-runners, which, given the situation in right field, is a player the Yankees could use.
Say the Yankees are hosting the Oakland Athletics and are up 6-5 to start the eighth inning. Beltran's and/or Soriano's spot in the lineup won't come up for another inning or two, and the A's have the top of their lineup due to bat. Beltran, whose knees will surely explode one of these years, and Soriano, who has never played right field and might not even have the arm for it anyway, are your choices in right. Meanwhile, you have Ichiro sitting on the bench; he comes in, cuts a ball off towards the gap, and holds Coco Crisp to a single. If Beltran or Soriano were out there, perhaps that ball rolls to the wall, resulting in a double, or even a triple. Jed Lowrie then comes up and grounds into a 4-6-3 double play, whereas a ground ball to the right side moves Coco Crisp over to third with one out if Beltran or Soriano were in right field.
Or, the situation could be the Yankees being down 4-3 in the top of the ninth at Fenway Park against the Red Sox. Koji Uehara is on the mound and he allows a leadoff single to Beltran. Ichiro, sitting on the bench, comes in to pinch-run. Next, Ichiro steals second, then Brian McCann, or whoever is set to hit behind Beltran, knocks home Suzuki to tie the game. The game then goes to extra innings with the score at 4-4, where David Ortiz hits a deep drive to right field. Ichiro, after hitting for Beltran, is the new right fielder, and promptly makes a nice running catch in deep right field to rob Ortiz of an extra-base hit. Finally, with the game still tied, the Yankees score the go-ahead run and finish off the game the next half inning.
Sure, these are random, in-game situations I came up with in my head, and the Yankees may only have a small number of these exact opportunities come up during the season, but the point remains. Ichiro is, even at 40 years of age, a pretty useful fifth outfielder, and someone that doesn't hurt to have. The thing I'm afraid of, though, is
if when one of the outfielders gets hurt, Ichiro will be thrust into everyday duty, instead of someone like Zoilo Almonte, who, at this point, deserves an everyday role over Ichiro, even if he struggled last season. The Yankees love their veterans, and Ichiro is sure to get everyday at-bats over a young guy like Zoilo, even if it's the wrong thing to do. It's in their M.O; it's who they are.
Another reason to keep Ichiro may be because the Yankees simply won't find someone to take him off their hands; his $6.5 million price tag is a little expensive for most teams, given his abilities. Ken Rosenthal came up with an Ichiro-for-J.J.-Putz swap, but that's speculation more than anything. The Diamondbacks' outfield is packed, and they already have a fifth outfielder like Ichiro in Tony Campana, anyway. I've also seen trade suggestions that involve Ichiro going to a team for a broken down/pricey reliever, which may hurt the Yankees more than it helps them. Although he's far from the player he used to be, keeping Ichiro in a limited role may be the smart thing, and the thing that is most likely to happen, for the Yankees.