Were you to imagine an offseason where the Cubs did not, or were unable to, significantly overhaul the positional roster, and instead were able only to make one or two key additions, where would you focus your attention?
It would have to be center field and the leadoff spot, right?
Obviously the Cubs *can* internally cover center field with a combination of Jason Heyward and Albert Almora, depending on what they do in right field, but not only does that not provide you much in the way of upside (and considerable risk of downside given Almora’s performance), it definitely doesn’t help you in the leadoff spot. Almora is not a guy you want getting the most at bats on your team on a given day, no matter what Joe Maddon seemed to believe about that particular match-up. And Heyward tried to give it a go, but it just seems clear that it’s not for him.
So, then, if you could find one player in free agency who offers the ability to play center field and also lead off, wouldn’t he be something close to the singular dream target for the Cubs this offseason?
Well, sir. I can’t tell you there’s a guarantee in free agency out there, and I certainly can’t tell you that performance in Japan will always translate to the bigs, but I can tell you there’s an impending free agent from Japan that the Cubs definitely need to give a look:
Seibu Lions OF Shogo Akiyama said he would like to test the MLB waters in the offseason via free agency, and Seibu is already preparing a large multi-year deal to try to keep him in NPB, but Rakuten is now rumored to be interested as well https://t.co/XXjZsJPRMO #npb
— NPB on reddit (@NPB_Reddit) October 8, 2019
Shogo Akiyama, 31, is a quality defensive center fielder who has posted the following slash lines in NPB since becoming a regular five years ago:
As you can immediately see, the dude can hit in NPB. And the profile there is different from that of to-be-posted three-true-outcome slugger Yoshitomo Tsutsugo, discussed here yesterday as perhaps not a great fit for the Cubs. Akiyama is not necessarily that type of slugger. He’s more of a bat-to-ball/line drive, disciplined, speedy guy (albeit one who still frequently drives the ball with authority). Last season was his most prolific strikeout year, and he was still only at 15.9%.
More from Baseball Prospectus:
It seems likely Seibu Lions speedy slugger Shogo Akiyama will move to the MLB this season. @Kazuto_Yamazaki walks us through his skillset and how that might translate to MLB. https://t.co/1Zq6QFNcqZ pic.twitter.com/XbXmVJpmom
— Baseball Prospectus (@baseballpro) October 8, 2019
Your big questions with Akiyama, of course, are how the bat translates to the big leagues, and whether he’s due to fall off as a speed guy who turns 32 in April.
As we saw when the Cubs signed Kosuke Fukudome, the bat-to-ball, lesser-raw-power, high-discipline profile in the early-30s doesn’t always play out like you’d think in MLB. Fukudome’s discipline remained, but his strikeouts spiked and his power evaporated. Still, he was posting OBPs in the .370s, so that ain’t bad. Overall, he actually was a fine hitter for the Cubs (.262/.369/.403), it’s just that in that offensive environment, that was only a 106 wRC+, and since the power never came along, he wasn’t what the Cubs were expecting him to be when he received a sizable four-year, $48 million contract before the 2008 season.
Not that we can use Fukudome over a decade ago as a transition comp for Akiyama (they’re very different players in other ways, not the least of which are Akiyama’s speed and ability in center field). Instead, it’s more of a broad (and admittedly obvious) point: coming from NPB to MLB messes with your effectiveness in a number of ways. The way you succeeded in Japan may not play exactly the same way in MLB (and heck, who knows how the juiced ball throws all this for a loop … and how long the juiced ball will even last!). You’ve gotta have the bat speed to preserve your hard contact, while also preserving your discipline against a much better pool of pitchers. Many hitters have demonstrated it can be done successfully, especially if you’re not necessarily expecting a superstar.
Of note, Akiyama has in hand a five-year, $23 million offer to stay in Japan, per the BP report. But he’s a true free agent, so if he wants to come to MLB for the challenge, he can see what’s up this offseason. Is $24 million really a huge risk for a team like the Cubs when this is a guy who *could* be such a perfect fit? It’s also not like the Cubs are bubbling up with so much outfield depth that they would be crushed by Akiyama revealing himself more as a fourth outfielder type than an everyday leadoff man.
I kinda hope we get a chance to get deeper into this topic this offseason, but I don’t want to go too far just yet until it’s clear Akiyama is soliciting MLB offers, and also until we get some more eyes-on reports about how his skillset will translate to MLB.
At a superficial level, though? Yeah, this is extremely interesting.
The other OF who is supposedly considering a jump to MLB is Shogo Akiyama. He doesn't have Tsutsugoh's power upside but he's the more complete player, and he can do this. pic.twitter.com/5LvgTrjwdC
— Patrick Newman (@npbtracker) October 8, 2019