Earlier this month, we took a look at a pending Japanese free agent outfielder who could be a “perfect fit” for the Cubs’ needs this offseason.
Among the preliminary questions about Shogo Akiyama, however, was whether he would actually look to MLB to sign his next free agent deal, or if the 31-year-old would stick around in the NPB after reportedly receiving a relatively lucrative contract offer (five years, $23 million).
Per a report from the Japan Times, Akiyama has announced that he will file for international free agency*, with the intention of signing with a Major League Baseball team. The report acknowledges the possibility that he could still negotiate with an NPB team, but it does sound like his first priority is to find a deal with an MLB club.
The Cubs were already scouting Akiyama this year, together with a few other MLB teams, so clearly there was at least some anticipation of this possible move.
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.
If Akiyama truly prefers a shot at MLB over sticking in NPB, it’s entirely possible that he won’t be landing a deal beyond two or three years, for a modest salary. Not only would that make sense financially for the Cubs, but basically your rolling the dice on a possible high-contact leadoff solution in center field, with the downside potential of a decent bench outfielder who plays good defense and runs well (something the Cubs are lacking as it is).
*Note, players at least 25 years old, who’ve spent at least six years in a foreign pro league, are not subject to any of those IFA restrictions you’re familiar with. Akiyama would just be a straight up free agent.