Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
Donning the Yankees pinstripes won't be Ichiro Suzuki's personal fountain of youth, but they will improve his fantasy value.
That's not to say the outfielder will return to his 2001-10 form, when multi- hit games and 220-hit seasons were the norm.
Ichiro is 38 years old, and he has recorded a .268 batting average in 1083 at- bats dating back to the start of the 2011 season. He has also stopped running, attempting only 18 steals in 96 games this season, making his complete lack of power or run production intolerable for fantasy owners.
However, New York presents a different atmosphere for Ichiro. It's not often a player can go to New York and face less pressure than before, but that is the case here. Ichiro has been the face of the Seattle Mariners for more than a decade, the man who shepherded the team in a new direction after Ken Griffey Jr. and Alex Rodriguez left town. In New York, he will be just another guy playing a specific role.
Plus, he is joining a lineup full of perennial All-Stars and future Hall of Famers after spending the last several years toiling alongside replacement- level talent. Ichiro will bat towards the bottom of the Yankees order -- he hit eighth Monday in his first game with the team -- which is new territory for the outfielder.
But perhaps shifting Ichiro away from everywhere he has earned acclaim -- Seattle, leadoff, right field -- will allow us to forget who he was and come to terms with who he is. Which, for all intents and purposes, is a Brett Gardner clone.
Gardner hasn't played since mid-April due to a sore right elbow, and after multiple attempts to come back the left fielder finally grew tired of all the setbacks and opted for season-ending surgery. The Yankees only need Ichiro to be Gardner, a .265 career hitter who has stolen 137 bases in 468 games, and he certainly can do that (minus the high OBP).
If you polled 100 fantasy owners prior to Gardner's surgery announcement and asked them whether they would rather own Gardner or Ichiro over the rest of the season, I think most of them would have said Gardner. Perception is everything, and Ichiro is perceived as a washed up shell of his former self while Gardner is viewed as someone whose speed is an elite skill.
Now that Ichiro has taken Gardner's place on the Yankees, it is time to let him take Gardner's place on fantasy teams. Instead of looking at Ichiro as decrepit, we should see him as possessing the same skills and abilities Gardner has. The only difference is that Ichiro has a healthy elbow.
I think Yankees manager Joe Girardi will coax Ichiro into running nearly as much as Gardner did last season, when he stole 49 bases in 62 attempts. Ichiro stole a base the first time he reached for the Yankees Monday, and there should be many more to come. With only six players currently in the 20-steal club, that should make the former superstar plenty valuable to fantasy owners again.
Just don't expect the 2001 American League MVP to come walking out of the Yankees clubhouse.