The Cubs reportedly scouted Japanese center fielder Shogo Akiyama this year and the free agent is interested in coming to play in MLB in 2020. The latest on the outfielder was that he left the Japanese national baseball team last week after suffering a fracture in his right foot. He was hit by a pitch in an exhibition game against Canada.
MLB Trade Rumors published their annual top-50 free agents, along with contract projections and destinations. Akiyama, 31, is one of very few free agent center fielders this offseason, but despite the lack of options available MLBTR only projected him getting a two-year deal worth $6 million.
Akiyama has topped 20 homers in each of the past three seasons and swiped 15-plus bags in each of the past five years. In all, since the 2015 season, he’s a .320/.398/.497 hitter. As with any free agent from Japan, particularly one who’ll turn 32 in his first would-be MLB season, there will be questions about whether his abilities will carry over to MLB. He’s a star in NPB, so he should be able to land a multi-year deal to remain in Japan if he doesn’t find a big league offer. But Akiyama is the best free-agent bet to give a big league team a regular center fielder.
If you’re the Cubs, you immediately jump on that deal. However, despite the risk teams will be taking on when signing a Japanese player and wondering just how their skills will translate in MLB, Akiyama already has a contract offer worth $23 million over five years to stay in Japan. So, if he does leave Japan for the United States, you’d think he’d demand more than $3 million per year.
Yet, a two-year deal at $10 million or a contract with several incentives built in may get it done. The Cubs should still explore a deal for Akiyama at that price.
We’ve seen one scouting report on Akiyama and it certainly points to a great fit for the Cubs.
MLB reporter Jon Morosi wrote about international players on MLB’s radar this offseason and that included Akiyama. Morosi included some comments from a few pitchers who have faced the left-handed hitter in the past couple seasons and their take on Akiyama.
From Frank Herrmann, the former Indians and Phillies right-hander:
Herrmann told MLB.com in a recent interview that he projects Akiyama as a No. 6 or 7 hitter in a Major League lineup. While Akiyama has played center field in Japan, Herrmann envisions him as a left fielder in MLB due to some regression in his defense over the past several seasons.
“He’s a good contact hitter, he has speed and he plays every day,” Herrmann said. “Actually, he plays every inning. He has a record of playing every inning, of every game, for the last five years in a row. That speaks to his work ethic … he’s always very interested in getting better.
“I think there’s a way to attack him with velocity, up and in on his hands, but I would’ve said the same thing about Ohtani a few years ago, and he’s plugged up that hole in his swing. Akiyama can make a similar adjustment because he’s so coachable and hardworking. He can handle depth breaking balls very well but struggles a bit more with sharp, short breakers.”
Mike Bolsinger, who used to be with the Dodgers, compared Akiyama to Nationals right fielder Adam Eaton.
“He reminds me of Adam Eaton, with his approach,” Bolsinger said of the Nationals right fielder. “He can hit the ball the other way really well. As a pitcher, it’s frustrating to face him. You’re always asking, ‘How did he hit that ball? In the States, that would be a strikeout.’ I’ve seen him hit it off the ground before.”
Bolsinger said he’s “100 percent” sure Akiyama will be an everyday player in the Majors. In the end, Akiyama could have a similar profile to that of Nori Aoki, who arrived to the Majors from NPB for his age-30 season and was a valuable contributor and highly regarded teammate over six years in MLB.
In six MLB seasons, Nori Aoki slashed .285/.350/.387. The Cubs would certainly take that from Akiyama if they agreed to a deal this offseason.
If Akiyama is determined to play in MLB next season and his market isn’t necessarily high, then there’s no real excuse for the Cubs not to pursue him to help their outfield.