While we mostly – and rightly – have ruminated on Shogo Akiyama as a free agent signing for the Cubs out of Japan, the lefty center fielder is not the only player seeking to come to MLB from NPB.
You could conceivably make an argument for any of those three being Cubs targets, though it’s not quite as obvious a fit as Akiyama. Consider that Tsutsugo projects as a big power, big strikeout, rough defensive outfielder/DH type. Get him on a great deal in his late-20s and deal with imperfect fit? I guess, sure, it’s possible on the right deal, but it’s not at all an obvious fit for the Cubs. Kikuchi might be a defensive star at second base, but he’s not likely to be better than “solidly below average” at the plate, and second base is a spot where the Cubs already have a load of imperfect options. Yamaguchi might be interesting as a swing type, but as a 90-mph-type, he doesn’t quite fit the power-arm profile the Cubs are looking to add to their mix.
So, anyway, that is to say, when it comes to the top four KNOWN players trying to come over from Japan right now, it makes sense that the Cubs would be all over Shogo, but maybe not so much the others?
Or maybe? Or maybe there are others coming?
How about this mysterious line from Gordon Wittenmyer to tease you today, emphasis mine: “The Diamondbacks have been linked to Akiyama, but he’s one of at least two Japanese free agents on the Cubs’ radar — and by far the better fit for a team making a priority out of both his position and his skill set at the plate. Even at an estimated price tag that might be as reasonable as $5 million or so per year for maybe three years, it could make a full-speed pursuit something the Cubs have to put on hold until gaining more clarity with their payroll flexibility.”
There is no explicit mention of the other Japanese free agent in whom the Cubs have interest, though the connected reference of Shogo being a far better fit is suggestive of the other player being a positional guy. Now, strictly speaking, neither Tsutsugo nor Kikuchi are “free agents,” as Akiyama is. Those two are instead being posted by their teams in Japan – however, under the new posting system, those players can negotiate with all teams *LIKE* a free agent, and then the posting fee is simply a percentage of the agreed-to contract. So, basically, it’s free agency. I don’t think that part was a clue.
The reference to position and skill set at the plate could really cut either way on Tsutsugo and Kikuchi, each of whom have potential issues for the Cubs with respect to where they play and their skills at the plate. Since Kikuchi profiles as a defensively-inclined bench player, however, my gut says a rumor referencing a player’s position and bat in the way Wittenmyer does … it probably is about Tsutsugo.
If it is indeed Tsutsugo who is on the Cubs’ radar, you love it in the sense that he’s only 28, and he has absolutely destroyed the ball in NPB. Give me that bat on a reasonable deal! … however, as we said when first giving him a look, and as Wittenmyer indicates, the fit is just not so obvious. On the one hand, defensively, if he plays anywhere at all, most think Tsutsugo is a left fielder, a spot that currently seems locked up by Kyle Schwarber. And unless the Cubs are gonna do something crazy like swapping Schwarber for Miguel Andujar, it’s hard to imagine the Cubs going after Tsutsugo nearly as aggressively as other teams out there that (1) have a hole in left field, (2) have a hole at first base, and/or (3) have the DH spot available.
Also: relative to the rest of NPB, Tsutsugo strikes out more than average, and actually struck out a TON last year. In the translation to MLB, that figure is almost certain to go up, and I doubt the Cubs are specifically looking to bring in another high-strikeout, high-slugging type in free agency.
Tsutsugo ranked as the number 42 free agent on FanGraphs’ list (the only NPB player ranked), with a projected contract at two years and $16 million from the expert, but four years and $40 million from the crowd (you could understand there being so much uncertainty when it comes to international players). Even on the cheaper deal, the Cubs aren’t going there unless they view Tsutsugo as a most-of-the-time starter for them.
Of Tsutsugo, FanGraphs writes:
“Sources indicate to FanGraphs that Tsutsugo averaged 92 mph off the bat in NPB last year, which would put him among the top 30 big leaguers by average exit velo. He has monstrous, all-fields power thanks to plate coverage that seems impossible based on how much he opens up his front side during his swing, much like Eddie Rosario.
He’s defensively limited to left field or DH. Tsutsugo has some experience at third base, but he’s a lumbering infielder with below-average hands, which means he should only play there in an emergency. The bad hands make first base kind of dicey, too.
He has a chance to be an average everyday player for a while but there’s no margin for error here because of the defensive limitations, and while he’s one of the youngest free agents of this group, Tsutsugo’s frame is not the sort that typically ages well.”
Are there any other possibilities coming that we haven’t discussed before who could be on the Cubs’ radar? Well, Jon Morosi’s write-up includes Akiyama, Tsutsugo, and Kikuchi as the only position players from Japan. Moreover, Jim Allen – who covers NPB – has only those three, plus Yamaguchi, as the guys seeking to come over right now.
That is all to say, it is highly likely that Wittenmyer’s reference is to Tsutsugo, who is probably going to be a very interesting hitter in MLB, but may not fit with the Cubs.
Since Tsutsugo is being posted, rather than a true free agent, his process has to resolve with 30 days of the posting – counting from yesterday. So a deal must be completed by December 19.
One general consideration from an environmental perspective: if you were going to be bringing in a player from Japan, might it be nice to bring in more than one at a time? Perhaps that familiarity (and Yu Darvish also has some familiarity with the long-time NPB players) would help the adjustment process? It also might make it more conceivable that current Cubs players could bond, with and learn from, players from an entirely different baseball culture if that entire weight wasn’t falling on just one player’s shoulders (while he is, himself, trying to succeed in a new, very challenging league).
It might not work out that way right now, because signing both Akiyama and Tsutsugo seems highly unlikely, but it’s just something I was thinking about.