The Cubs have free-agent center fielder Shogo Akiyama “on their radar,” reports Patrick Mooney of The Athletic (subscription required), and Diamondbacks general manager Mike Hazen acknowledged his own club’s interest in the 31-year-old at this week’s GM Meetings (link via Nick Piecoro of the Arizona Repbulic).
Akiyama, a longtime Seibu Lions star, is hoping to make the jump to Major League Baseball this offseason. Unlike countryman Yoshitomo Tsutsugo, who was posted by the Yokohama BayStars earlier today, Akiyama has nine years of service time, making him a true free agent who isn’t subject to the MLB-NPB posting system.
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. He’ll turn 32 next April, so in addition to the standard questions on the extent to which a player’s output in NPB can be approximated in MLB, Akiyama will also deal with teams wondering when he’ll begin to decline. Although he’s been clear about his desire to challenge himself by playing in the Major Leagues, that doesn’t guarantee that he’ll make the switch. Akiyama is a star in NPB, so he should be able to land a multi-year deal to remain in Japan if he doesn’t find offers from MLB clubs to be suitable.
It’s not terribly difficult to see why the Cubs would have interest in Akiyama. Albert Almora hasn’t developed into the quality regular they’d hoped when he was a highly regarded prospect, and Cubs center fielders posted a dismal .232/.305/.388 line on the season as a whole. Both Almora and Jason Heyward, who shifted to center field frequently in 2019 (largely due to Almora’s struggles), posted negative center-field marks in Defensive Runs Saved and Ultimate Zone Rating.
The D-backs don’t have a glaring need in center, although that’s partially due to the flexibility that Ketel Marte affords the front office. Marte can capably handle either center field or second base, leaving Hazen and his staff free to explore a number of possibilities. Still, via Piecoro, Hazen specifically acknowledged that the Diamondbacks “think [Akiyama] is a good player.” The Diamondbacks, under Hazen, haven’t been shy about rolling the dice on players who’ve had success overseas; Arizona has signed right-handers Yoshihisa Hirano and Merrill Kelly to low-cost deals over the past two years.
Chicago and Arizona won’t be the only clubs that gives some consideration to Akiyama this winter. Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins has already acknowledged some interest, and the dearth of center-field options available in free agency only enhances the likelihood that he’ll garner additional MLB interest.