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January 30, 2012

The BP First Take

Monday, January 30

by Daniel Rathman

Admitting a star player’s decline is perhaps the most difficult public relations situation that a franchise can encounter. That’s especially true when the player is the face of the franchise, the one drawing fans to the ballpark and attracting attention to the team from outside its market.

The Mariners are facing that dilemma heading into the 2012 season, with Ichiro Suzuki coming off by far his worst campaign in the United States. Ichiro logged a .272/.310/.335 triple slash last year, failing to reach the 200-hit mark for the first time since coming over from Japan. Now 38, Ichiro is losing the speed and acceleration out of the box that are vital to his slash-and-dash approach. With that decline, his overall value plummeted from 3.2 WARP in 2010 to -0.7 WARP in 2011.

Manager Eric Wedge conceded on Thursday that he thought about moving Ichiro out of the leadoff spot in his lineup last season, but ultimately decided to leave him there, with the costs outweighing the potential benefits. One problem, to be sure, was that Seattle’s roster lacked a desirable alternative at the top of the batting order. Dustin Ackley was the only obvious choice, and moving him out of the three-hole would have made an already dismal heart of the lineup even worse. 

But Ichiro’s status as the face of the Mariners also likely complicated Wedge’s choice. The team was not in contention, so there was little reason to upset fans that have come to appreciate Ichiro as one of the M’s few bright spots, along with Felix Hernandez. With Jesus Montero now in tow, Wedge will again have the option to—in his words—“work off Ichiro a little bit,” and it will be interesting to see if Ackley or another Mariner finds his name atop the lineup card in 2012.

A similar situation unfolded in a much different environment last season, when Derek Jeter—despite his epic five-hit performance that included No. 3000 on July 9—proved unworthy of hitting first or second in Joe Girardi’s order. Girardi stuck with Jeter, and was rewarded with a .327/.383/.428 second half, but that surge was buoyed partly by BABIPs of .427 and .385 in August and September, respectively.

Jeter can no longer handle right-handed pitching at the level necessary to catalyze a contending team’s offense. While still outstanding against southpaws, Jeter posted a 666 OPS versus righties in 2011, on the heels of a  633 effort in 2010. Batting him first or second every day hurts the team, and while it might only mean a win or two fewer over the course of the season, that could be the difference between a division title and a wild-card playoff if the Rays and Red Sox are in contention.   

As spring training approaches, Wedge and Girardi have tough decisions to make about their franchises’ fading stars—decisions that will likely hurt them from a PR standpoint whichever way they go. Though Wedge’s position is made easier by the Mariners’ rebuilding process and lower-pressure setting, the “domino effect” he described in the afore-linked interview is something he will have to deal with whenever the move is made. 

Daniel Rathman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Daniel's other articles. You can contact Daniel by clicking here

7 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

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NYYanks826

If Girardi were smart, he would bat Jeter in the 9th spot (8th spot if Cervelli is catching that day).

Jeter is the kind of player who, based on his attitude and leadership in the past, likely wouldn't make a fuss about being moved out of the top of the lineup, and the average Yankee fan is probably smart enough to know that this is a move that needs to be done.

...Or maybe I'm giving the average Yankee fan too much credit.

Jan 30, 2012 00:54 AM
rating: 0
 
sacko83

I don't know about that. His refusal to move off of shortstop when A-Rod came over would suggest otherwise. I think Jeter's like most great athletes who refuse, or are unable to, realistically assess their declining skills and are willing to make personal sacrifices for the overall team. I'm sure Jeter still thinks he plays great defense and has strong leadoff skills and any move from that established role will be done begrudgingly.

Jan 30, 2012 06:56 AM
rating: 1
 
slascher

I think you are giving Jeter too much credit. I love the guy, but I see no reason to think he would handle that kind of demotion any better than Jorge did.

Jan 30, 2012 06:56 AM
rating: 2
 
Shaun P.
(676)

Indeed.

Fortunately for the Captain, I doubt Girardi will move Jeter out of the leadoff spot this year. He couldn't stick to doing it last year.

Jan 30, 2012 09:02 AM
rating: 1
 
Drew

It's highly unlikely that batting Jeter leadoff would cost the Yankees even one win per season, much less two. They should definitely move him down, but let's not overstate the importance of lineup construction.

Jan 30, 2012 09:45 AM
rating: 2
 
devine

Didn't Jeter used to prefer hitting second? I seem to remember his move to leadoff happened with a bit of grumbling.

Jan 30, 2012 10:43 AM
rating: 0
 
Jack Thomas

Leadoff to ninth would be 144 less AB for the year for Jeter--8th would be 126 AB. It could easily be worth a win or two depending the replacement.

Jan 30, 2012 19:38 PM
rating: 0
 
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