- Eric Karabell, ESPN.com Senior Writer
At this time last year, Seattle Mariners outfielder Ichiro Suzuki was coming off another standout campaign that consisted of a league-leading 214 hits, a .315 batting average and 42 stolen bases, and it sure didn't seem like many people were concerned about his being 37 years old. Suzuki seemed impervious to age, still displaying the skills that were making him a top right fielder and very much in demand on fantasy draft day.
Of course, now that he's coming off a season in which he hit "only" .272, more than 50 points lower than his career batting average, he suddenly has become too old at age 38.
Yep, it's time for my annual diatribe about older baseball players and how some of them can still actually help a fantasy baseball team. I know, what a concept, right? Last year I discussed Bobby Abreu and went around the diamond highlighting others on the wrong side of 35, including Lance Berkman, Derek Jeter, Scott Rolen, Jorge Posada, David Ortiz and Torii Hunter, with varying success. On the pitching side, I featured Chris Carpenter, Tim Hudson, Hiroki Kuroda, Ted Lilly and Derek Lowe; those first four were pretty good, while Lowe's problems likely had little to do with the year he was born.
Suzuki wasn't prominently mentioned in last year's blog entry, as I alluded to him and New York Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez as having their "value not suppressed by age." Well, in A-Rod's case, the missed games have surely hurt his value, and he suddenly looks old (though I say he'll bounce back). Does Ichiro look old? I think age is precisely the reason Suzuki has gone from the 44th player chosen in 2011 ESPN average live drafts to 87th in 2012 drafts, but what really changed other than his getting older? He doesn't look too old to me, and I'm guessing the Mariners aren't concerned, since they're moving him to the No. 3 lineup slot.
In truth, Suzuki wasn't that bad in 2011; he stole 40 bases in 47 attempts (only three players stole more bases), remained as durable as ever (nobody had more at-bats) and cut his strikeout rate, and it's not like he hit his weight. A .272 mark is usable. He was 15th in the league in hits. Then again, Suzuki's BABIP tells a relevant tale; his career mark is .351, and it's enough of a sample size (7,000-plus at-bats!) to be legitimate, and not skewed like Austin Jackson's (.396) was in 2010. In, 2011 Suzuki's BABIP was "only" .295, right around the league average, but not the Ichiro average. We can't presume his 2012 BABIP will be upward of .350, but it's reasonable to expect a mild bounce-back from him. After all, the speed remains.
I have Suzuki slotted at least 20 spots better than current ESPN live draft results. I see him hitting near .300 again, and there aren't many players I consider safer bets to reach at least 35 stolen bases. Hitting third has to help his RBI potential, although I'll still take the under on 75 of them. This is a really interesting situation, by the way; Ichiro has 8,060 career plate appearances, all but 78 of them hitting first. This is really new territory. It's possible the experiment ends by May. It could end tomorrow. Will it work? Certainly Suzuki is no prototypical middle-of-the-order bat. He slugged .335 last year, although those who regularly watch him in batting practice claim he could hit for power if he wanted to. In 2009, Suzuki hit 11 home runs, producing 46 extra-base hits. Who's to say he can't do that again, even at the advanced age of 38?
Here are 10 other players aged 35 years or older whom I'm keeping my eye on:
1. Alex Rodriguez, 3B, Yankees: He's going in the sixth round of drafts, which seems like a bargain to me. Yes, he played in only 99 games in 2011 but still ranked 11th at his position on the Player Rater. I expect 25 home runs in 130 games.
2. Derek Jeter, SS, Yankees: As bad as you think he was in 2011, he was still a top-10 shortstop. Don't expect a major drop-off in 2012.
4. Aubrey Huff, 1B/OF, San Francisco Giants: Everyone says he's in great shape in March, of course, but I'm kind of buying what Huff is selling, to a degree. He credits offseason Pilates for his resurrection. I've seen a few of his spring at-bats, and a return to 2010's 20 homers and 80 RBIs seems realistic.
5. Alfonso Soriano, OF, Chicago Cubs: I don't think he'll hit less than .250 just because he's 36 years old. But consider this a reminder that he also has hit 50 home runs over the past two seasons, and he could hit cleanup this season.
6. Jim Thome, DH, Philadelphia Phillies: I must admit to being curious about how Thome will be deployed. In an NL-only format, his 12-15 home runs -- I think he can muster that many -- are worth a late-round look.
7. Hiroki Kuroda, SP, Yankees: Even if you bump his ERA up a full run thanks to the change in leagues and different competition, he makes my top 40 starting pitchers.
8. Tim Hudson, SP, Atlanta Braves: Back surgery likely will cost him April and perhaps May, so draft him after the top 50 starters, but don't forget him. It's not like he's a power pitcher.
9. R.A. Dickey, SP, New York Mets: Tim Wakefield just left the game at age 74. Knuckleballers don't age. And while Dickey slips to the 23rd round, his two-year averages for the Mets show a 3.08 ERA and 1.20 WHIP.
10. Rafael Betancourt, RP, Colorado Rockies: I can't imagine many pitchers earned their first double-digit save season at age 37. This guy should get 35 saves. I'd take him over similarly aged closers J.J. Putz, Joe Nathan and Kyle Farnsworth, but not over Mariano Rivera. As Mo proves, age is just a number!
By the way, it has little to do with fantasy, but speaking of age, I'm rooting for Jamie Moyer. He hit 35 a mere 14 years ago! Go, Jamie!