The Rundown: Akiyama Represents Possible OF Upgrade, MLB Looks to Contract 42 Minor League Affiliates, Kris Bryant Good at Baseball

The Cubs played the Cardinals in seven of their final 10 games during the stretch run back in September, thus shining a light on one their major flaws. Even though Dexter Fowler wasn’t batting leadoff for St. Louis, it wasn’t difficult to realize that the Cubs have yet to replace the outfielder at the top of the lineup or in center field since he left after the 2016 season. We’ve heard Theo Epstein say the same thing every winter since: The Cubs need a center fielder, preferably hold down the No. 1 spot.

In 2019, the Cubs slashed .212/.294/.383 at the top of the order, numbers that put them near the bottom of all of baseball. That’s below replacement level, and no one player epitomized their struggles defensively and offensively more than centerfielder and sometimes leadoff batter Albert Almora Jr. With a wRC+ of 64 and a -0.7 fWAR, Almora was one of the least productive hitters in the game. And though he carries the reputation of being a solid defender, he rated as the second-worst defensive center fielder in MLB in 2019.

One player said to be on the Cubs’ radar is Shogo Akiyama of Nippon Professional Baseball. Scouts are somewhat undecided on Akiyama, though a career OBP of .376 — it’s .399 over the last five seasons — would easily best any player who has attempted to fill the leadoff spot in the order on a regular basis since Fowler rejected the Cubs’ qualifying offer in 2016 and signed with the Cardinals. But there are some red flags.

Akiyama will be 32 on April 16 and could be past his prime. In fact, his numbers have started to level off offensively and defensively over the past few seasons. Though he still gets on base, his OPS last season was the second-worst of his career. His speed and defense is also in decline and those numbers are unlikely to bounce back at his age. According to Jim Allen, who in some ways is the NBP’s answer to Bill James, wrote that Akiyama “is not slow, but now he’s just better than average.”

“He can hit for average and has deceptive power, [and] has always been among Delta Graphs’ leaders in ‘hard contact percentage,’ but tends to hit the ball on the ground a lot,” Allen further states. “Once a dynamite base runner he is no longer a serious base-stealing threat. Once a terrific defensive centerfielder with an above-average arm and very good range, Akiyama’s defensive results as tracked by Delta Graphs and Win Shares show a steady decline.”

With a career .829 OPS, Akiyama would give you the kind of production you’d expect from former Braves and White Sox centerfielder Adam Jones. Translating numbers from the NPB to MLB is never easy, but a look at Jones’ age 32 season in 2010 seems to be a spot on comp. I can’t help but wonder if the Cubs already have a similar player in Ian Happ, whose 2020 projections per Baseball Reference have him slashing .252/.341/.826 with 16 home runs and 45 RBI in 324 plate appearances. Plus, Happ can switch hit.

I’m sure Epstein will leave no stone unturned in his search for a leadoff hitter, and it has been rumored he will aggressively pursue Whit Merrifield of the Royals. David Fletcher of the Angels is a lesser known option who could be available in trade, and Starling Marte of the Pirates could also be available if the Cubs are not averse to trading within their own division. And though he doesn’t play center, Eric Sogard offers similar top-of-the-order production. Even though Akiyama will come relatively cheap, I have my doubts about a 32-year-old with declining skills. Then again, Astros’ outfielder Michael Brantley proved last season that players at a similar age are far from washed up.

Cubs News & Notes

  • When you dig a little deeper, there’s no denying that Kris Bryant is the Cubs’ best hitter. He continues to fine-tune his approach at the plate and the results speak for themselves.
  • Bryant has a career .901 OPS and averages 32 homers, 92 RBI and 112 runs scored per 162 games over his five years in the big leagues. Despite the social media buzz seems unlikely to be traded this winter.
  • Jordan Bastian of MLB.com provides a nice analysis of Akiyama in this week’s Cubs Inbox.
  • It may be impossible to get a read on what Epstein will do this offseason, which is fine by the Cubs president of baseball operations, who refers to himself as “sufficiently boring.”
  • As a new manager with strong ties to his predecessor, David Ross will be heavily compared to Joe Maddon this season. That said, other teams expect the Cubs to shake up their roster this winter, so Ross might be spared the direct comparisons.
  • The Cubs’ minor league affiliate in South Bend will express its strong Latinx community this winter, and will call themselves los Cabritos Maldichos, or the Cursed Goats, for five games in the 2020 season.
  • I’m dropping the daily KB theoretical trade. I feel like I caved to Facebook followers of Cubs Insider in creating it, but the responses from that medium have been just too insane for me to continue.

Monday Stove

The New York Daily News reports 42 minor league baseball clubs could be severed from their major league affiliations in a proposal presented by Commissioner Rob Manfred. Much of that proposal was allegedly put together by Jeffrey Luhnow of the Astros and David Stearns of the Brewers.

MLB is going to eliminate the 10-day IL for pitchers starting next season, requiring a 15-day minimum instead. The reasoning is to prevent MLB teams from manipulating their rosters. Position players will still have a 10-day IL.

Could the Marlins be active in free agency this winter?

Money might not be the only factor in determining whether Mookie Betts re-signs with the Red Sox. The outfielder is said to be looking to play his next 10 years for a sustainable winner.

Athletics GM David Forst say his priority this season will be strengthening the team’s bullpen.

Likewise, Chaim Bloom of the Red Sox indicated that improving the team’s wretched relief corps will also be a priority. Drew Pomeranz is currently the best reliever available in free agency, but Bloom will probably look at options via trade.

Bryan Acuña, youngest brother of five-tool Braves superstar Ronald Acuña Jr., was one of 116 participants in Major League Baseball’s Trainer Partnership International Showcase. The youngest Acuña is 14, so he won’t be eligible to sign with a team until 2021.

Extra Innings

Though it is likely to appeal more to Boomers than any other generation, I watched a screening of The Irishman at midnight last night and I truly believe this is Martin Scorsese’s best film. I still have contacts in streaming media and I promised a 30-word review in exchange for the viewing. I give it five stars. Deniro, Pacino, and Pesci are at the tops of their games. But Ray Romano steals each scene in which he appears. Drops November 27 on Netflix.

They Said it

  • “[Center field] is certainly an area where we’re looking to improve our performance, whether it’s from the players existing on the roster or from outside. And there is a little bit of a corresponding impact, especially defensively. Who you have playing center affects the other two outfielders a little bit, and it affects your pitching staff and everything else. We’re also looking to reshape our offense a little bit, so who will play center field will have an impact on that.” – Theo Epstein

Monday Walk Up Song

Can’t Let Go by Lucinda Williams. Far and away my favorite female musician.

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