The Cubs are just now getting to the stage of making some legit decisions on offseason pursuits, but we’ve known for a while that they’re looking to upgrade the roster without spending much. One area of need is center field, a position from which they got disappointing production on both offense and defense last season. They could also use another contact hitter who can balance the lineup, whether it’s out of the leadoff spot or elsewhere in the order.
Nicholas Castellanos isn’t likely to be back on the North Side, a decision that comes down almost as much to baseball reasons as it does money. Kyle Schwarber remains more valuable to the Cubs as their left fielder than as trade bait, and keeping up anything close to his late-season surge means he’ll easily exceed his projected $8-9 million salary. Barring a mildly shocking move to find a team willing to take on a decent chuck of Jason Heyward’s remaining contractual obligations, he’ll be back as the primary right fielder.
Sahadev Sharma reports that there’s also a “strong possibility” Albert Almora Jr. remains with the organization ($) in 2020, though it’s almost certainly not going to be as a starter. He rated out as one of the worst defensive centerfielders in the game last season and his anemic hitting meant he was worth -0.7 fWAR, tied for 234th out of 241 MLB players with at least 350 plate appearances. Even if a lot of that was due to the fallout from seeing a young girl struck by his errant foul ball in Houston, the Cubs can’t count on him to rebound.
Enter Shogo Akiyama, a 32-year-old lefty-batting center fielder who’s exploring MLB free agency after an All-Star career in Japan. This guy checks all the boxes for the Cubs and Patrick Mooney has confirmed that he is indeed on the team’s radar ($) as they look to upgrade at a discount.
A broken toe suffered at the end of October may have mucked up his market just a bit, but this is a guy who had just wrapped up his fifth straight season playing in all 143 of his team’s games. He’s logged at least 659 plate appearances in each of those, the worst of which saw him slash .296/.385/.422 with 103 strikeouts and 77 walks. His career slash of .301/.376/.454 is actually much lower than what he’s done since 2015, so he’s legit.
Early contract estimates for Akiyama are really light, with MLB Trade Rumors saying he’ll get a mere $6 million over two seasons. But that same projection called him “the best free-agent bet to give a big league team a regular center fielder,” so it’s safe to say competition for his services could boost both the length and amount of his deal. Even so, this is a guy the Cubs should absolutely be all over.
In addition to his decent glove in center and his solid plate approach, Akiyama is apparently a really good dude. He was recently named winner of NPB’s Golden Spirit Award, which recognizes a professional baseball players’ social contribution activities, and seems to fit what the Cubs are looking for in terms of positive clubhouse presence.
It’s silly to identify any one player as someone the Cubs really can’t afford to miss out on, but if they’ve decided to miss out on the top free agents because they really can’t afford them, Akiyama is as close to a must as it gets.