Although my expectations for Shogo Akiyama – both at the plate and defensively – have been tempered since he first came onto the scene as a potential free agent/Cubs target earlier this offseason, I was just so happy to see the latest development in this story.
It feels like we needed a little positivity around these parts, and now we’ve got it (in the form of a rumor about making the 2020 better by addition, not subtraction)!
Cubs and two other clubs have met with Japanese center fielder Shogo Akiyama according to industry source . He has attributes that have been missing on offense and defense . Career .376 OBP
— Bruce Levine (@MLBBruceLevine) December 11, 2019
According to Bruce Levine, the Chicago Cubs (and two other clubs (we’ll guess who in a moment)) have actually, finally met with Akiyama. The Japanese center fielder is a good fit for the Cubs, both in terms of what he can offer in the field – Sahadev Sharma has since squashed some initial concerns about CF defense – and at the plate, as well as expected price tag.
The evaluation there is a bit of a mixed bag. On the one hand, the Davenport translated projection is actually pretty awesome for Shogo’s bat. The system takes his 2019 NPB line and translates it to .298/.368/.411 in MLB, and when using that line to project for actual usage, he comes to a .306/.373/.433 line with a strikeout rate under 13% … which, uh … that’s like a stud leadoff hitter.
If there was any confidence around the league that Akiyama would actually do that, he’d be lining up offers well in excess of $15 million annually, especially if he could handle center field. So I tend to think that projection must be incredibly rosy. Beyond that, Akiyama winds up with a trio of player comps – Alex Gordon and Nick Markakis at the lower end, Adam Eaton at the higher end – based on a perception of declining speed and defense, that might make him a corner outfielder instead of a center fielder.
If that’s the case, and if the slash line isn’t actually going to feature an elite OBP, then you’re talking about a role playing free agent of the type that can absolutely be useful, but also doesn’t get PAAAAID in free agency these days.
Like I said, our understanding of his defense has actually ticked up since this projection (November 21st), so his skillset is still quite attractive. Broadly speaking, his upside would be that of a leadoff man and everyday center fielder with good contact skills and an ability to get on base, and his floor would be a very valuable fourth outfielder, who could play all three spots. That is a guy the Cubs could seriously use.
As for the competition, we know the Diamondbacks are very interested, so I’d pencil them in as one of the other two teams who’ve met with Akiyama so far, but the other team is tougher to pin down. Perhaps a week ago I would’ve guessed the White Sox, but they’ve since added Nomar Mazara (and Levine would’ve known/said if it were them). The Mets could also theoretically make some sense, but they seem focused on landing Starling Marte at the moment. I guess it’ll have to be Cubs, Diamondbacks, and a mystery team for now. I like those odds.
(Note: The Blue Jays, Reds, Brewers, and Marlins have all shown interest in free agent outfielder Kole Calhoun, so perhaps they could be considered plausible candidates, as well).
As far as a potential contract goes, that’s been extremely difficult to figure out. Early reports had him looking for a 3-4 year deal worth about $15M total – which is obviously a very reasonable ask. But other reports wondered if he’d have to settle for just a one-year contract (perhaps to prove how his bat would translate and whether he could stick in CF?). In any case, signing Akiyama is not expected to break the bank.
In a world where the Cubs weren’t so jealously guarding their dollars, a $5M AAV commitment, for the potential upside of a solid defense center fielder who can also solve your leadoff problem, would be nothing.
… but that is not the apparent world in which we live right now. So, then, the question is: how much do you buy Shogo as a definite starter for the Cubs? At $5 million per year over three years, that’s a lot higher than you’d ever be comfortable paying for a fourth outfielder, so you have to have some level of confidence that, for at least a year or two, he’s gonna take 60+% of the starts in center field while posting a .350ish OBP out of the leadoff spot.
In that way, the price tag kind wind up wagging the dog a little bit in these situations. If Akiyama actually gets a three-year, $15 million deal, it means the signing team does believe he has a better than 50/50 shot of being that guy. If, however, he doesn’t get that level of deal, it means the top bidder was still seriously concerned he was a fourth outfielder.