It’s practically impossible to surmise what the offseason narrative will be for the Cubs. Sure, the front office has been rebooted, David Ross has taken over for Joe Maddon, and we know that the Cubs aim to be creative in the midst of an ownership budget freeze. However, these realities were largely given and while they create a semblance of foundation with regard to roster construction manipulation, they hardly portend the direction we’ll see Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer embark on this winter.
While it’s understandable for Cubs fans to lament the presumed lack of spending, it’s a reality not worth dwelling on. Chastising the Ricketts for closing the checkbook and/or criticizing the front office for handing out monster contracts like candy are certainly fair critiques, but at this stage, they amount to nothing more than yelling at a cloud. Rather than pessimistically bemoan the offseason before it really begins, let’s take a look at a calculated risk the Cubs should absolutely pursue: signing Japanese center fielder Shogo Akiyama.
The Cubs’ interest in Akiyama is both well known and entirely unsurprising. Soon to be 32, Akiyama is no spring chicken, but he’s also proven himself a star in the NPB, posting a solid .320/.398/.497 triple slash since 2015. Granted, those numbers are due for regression given his age and the transition to MLB, but those numbers do suggest that he could reach base at a .350 clip in the States, a number worthy of a leadoff hitter.
The Fit is More than Obvious
As a left-handed hitter, the Cubs wouldn’t have to rely on Akiyama in a true everyday role, particularly as the season begins and they assess what they have in him. Not that I would entertain the idea of a de facto platoon, particularly given Albert Almora’s offensive woes, but 1) Almora can still serve a purpose in a reserve role and 2) pairing a right-handed backup to your left-handed starter makes perfect sense.
Akiyama would also slot Jason Heyward back into right field, where he maintains elite-level defense. His timeshare in center this past season was out of necessity, not desire, and advanced metrics weren’t terribly proud of Heyward’s work there (-2.0 UZR, -4 DRS). Adding a capable defender in center would allow him to nestle back into right, where he’s a perennial Gold Glove candidate.
There are concerns that Akiyama’s glove isn’t what it used to be, but one can rightly assume with his still above-average speed and track record of elite defense he’ll be just fine. Even if he provides merely average-to-above-average work in center that’s still an upgrade from last year’s late-season outfield composition, and should his bat prove to play capably in the leadoff role his value legitimately pays for itself.
The Contract fits the Cubs Budget
It has been widely reported that Akiyama is seeking a three-year deal worth $15 million, and even with more robust offers back in Japan, he’s set on testing his abilities in the bigs. Because he’s a true free agent, there’s no posting fee, which is an added perk for a Cubs team trying to save every penny they can.
The Cubs can easily cover Akiyama’s salary this year without spending a penny, too. Simply non-tendering Addison Russell and his $5.1 million projected salary serves the purpose of paying for one year of his contract while cutting a player the Cubs should have long been done with. And with the emergence of Nico Hoerner, the Cubs need not look beyond their own 40-man roster for their everyday player at the keystone (and invaluable backup to Javier Baez).
With other teams currently in the mix (MLBTR reports the Diamondbacks and Blue Jays, also have interest), the Cubs shouldn’t wait to see if the market lowers the price tag. They have a need, and Akiyama’s asking price is well within the team’s budget. Theo and Jed should borrow from Rick Hahn’s 2019-20 offseason playbook and jump the market by signing a player that addresses multiple needs. While no one is going to mistake Akiyama’s abilities for that of Yasmani Grandal’s, the comparison exists precisely because Shogo would fulfill a variety of Cubs’ needs in a similar fashion to the White Sox’s new stud catcher.
The Right Move in a Frustrating Time
We sincerely don’t know how well Akiyama will acclimate himself to MLB. We can make an educated guess that he’ll be at worst league average as both a leadoff hitter and a center fielder given his track record and the profile he carries. If that’s the floor for his services, $15 million over three years is a no-brainer. For a Cubs team that batted .212/.294/.383 with a 77 wRC+ in the leadoff spot while sporting a dubious cast in center field, average would do just fine, thank you.
Because the Cubs’ offseason direction remains opaque at best, there will be endless rumors. While rumors are fun, they also quickly enter the realm of the absurd and should be laughed off as such. Certainly, the Cubs have more needs, but Akiyama checks too many boxes while carrying a salary that’s more than palatable. Signing him now would allow the front office the rest of the winter to address the myriad questions that remain.
The Cubs need a leadoff hitter and a center fielder. They need to walk more, strike out less, and make more contact. Given the payroll constraints and roster needs, Akiyama is the ideal target for a Cubs team reconstructing its identity.
Hopefully Theo and Jed put rumors to bed and begin their offseason with a move that is both logical and frugal. It’s the least they can do for a cantankerous fanbase.
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