The Cubs number one priority this offseason should be finding a center fielder. It pains me to say this, because I’ve been a supporter of Albert Almora Jr. from the moment the Cubs took him with the first draft pick of the Theo Epstein era back in 2012. Even at the beginning of this season, I was predicting a breakout year from him. Instead, the Cubs got a big step backwards from Almora.
Almora got 363 plate appearances over 130 games. He hit a paltry .236/.271/.381 despite hitting a career high 12 home runs, albeit in a year that everyone was hitting home runs. He compensated for that with a 11 doubles, which would be a career low were it not for his rookie season when he only played 47 games.
Almora has always struggled to hit right-handed pitching, but this past year he completely tanked against lefties as well. He hit just .213/.254/.278 versus southpaws in 2019.
Even worse, Almora’s troubles at the plate followed him out to center field. Almora has never been a terrifically-gifted athlete, but his excellent baseball instincts had always allowed him to get the most out of what he did have. In 2019, those instincts abandoned him. His defensive numbers went down across the board and anyone who watched him play center field this past year can think of a few plays where Almora took a bad route or broke the wrong way, costing the Cubs an out.
If you look at Almora’s overall value, he was given an overall WAR of -0.7 by Fangraphs. Baseball-reference was even more critical, putting him at -1.0. Theoretically, the Cubs would have done better running a random minor leaguer out there than Almora.
Simply put, the Cubs couldn’t keep sending Almora out there if they expected to win the pennant and manager Joe Maddon didn’t. Instead, he opted to put Nicholas Castellanos out in right field after the trade and move Jason Heyward to center. The problem with that is that while Heyward is an excellent right fielder, he’s below-average in center. And while “Big Stick Nick” was a godsend at the plate, his play in right field only added to the Cubs defensive woes. With Kyle Schwarber in left field, the Cubs had below-average defense everywhere in the outfield when Maddon sent out Schwarber, Heyward and Castellanos.
Maybe Almora will bounce back in 2020, but it would be irresponsible to count on that. The Cubs need another option in center this upcoming season. One possibility is Ian Happ, who was actually above-average defensively in center field after he was recalled from the minors in July in a small sample size. Happ was solid at the plate as well. But again, Happ struggled as badly in the second half of 2018 than Almora did in 2019. Maybe he’s fixed his problems for good but again, it seems risky to expect that. If Happ really has fixed his swing, he might also be needed elsewhere on the diamond in a Ben Zobrist-style “super-utility” role.
There’s no one in the Cubs minor league system who can step in to the center field role in 2020. The hope is that the Cubs’ center fielder of the future was in South Bend this past season and that his name is either Brennen Davis or Cole Roederer. Neither will be ready to play in the majors in 2020 and probably not in 2021 either.
So the answer will probably come from outside the organization. Looking at the list of available free agents, there’s little there that deserves anything more than a minor league contract and an invite to Spring Training. Maybe 35-year-old Jarrod Dyson is worth a look, but he’s nobody’s first option. There’s been some talk that the Red Sox might non-tender Jackie Bradley Jr. to save payroll and if that happens, the Cubs should be very interested. But in truth, that’s very unlikely to happen. If Boston wants to dump his contract, it’s far more likely that Boston will tender Bradley a contract and then try to trade him.
Going to the trade market is another option for the Cubs, but truth be told, the Cubs don’t have a lot to deal. There are a few really valuable trade pieces in the minors, but the Cubs need to some of those guys to replace some of the current Cubs as they age and approach free agency over the next few years. The minor leaguers who aren’t in the Cubs’ future plans wouldn’t likely be very interesting to other teams in a trade.
Finally, the Cubs could re-sign Castellanos and try to trade Schwarber for a center fielder. But then the Cubs would be adding a lot of payroll and then they’d have to find a team with a center fielder they’d be willing to part with for Schwarber. Easier said than done and probably a lot easier to just keep Schwarber, who has a good chance of outproducing Castellanos over the next four years anyway.
There is finally one free agent option that the Cubs have reportedly been considering that most fans may not even be aware of. Shogo Akiyama is a gold glove-winning center fielder for the Saitama Seibu Lions of Nippon Professional Baseball. In Japan in 2019, the left-handed hitting Akiyama hit .303/.394/.471 with 20 home runs and 12 steals. He’s been described as having “quick hands and good bat speed” with “above-average power.” Another report lists him among the leaders in NPB “hard contact percentage” numbers, although he tends to hit more grounders than one might like. As you can see from those numbers, he can take a walk, although he does strike out a fair amount as well. Akiyama could possibly be the answer to two of the Cubs problems: center field and lead-off hitter.
Another advantage to Akiyama is his durability. He has played 143 games in each of the past five seasons.
Akiyama hit an inside-the-park home run off of Collin McHugh in the MLB Japan All-Star Series this past winter. I don’t think that means much other than it’s one piece of evidence that he can handle major league pitching.
Akiyama is a free agent, free to sign with any team. There would be no need to pay any posting fee.
If this all sounds too good to be true, there are some red flags surrounding Akiyama. The first is that 2020 will be his age-32 season and we know that most players are in decline by that age. The metrics say his defense in center field has started to decline already, although most caution that these analytics are brand new in Japan and haven’t yet proven their accuracy. One of those reports linked to above said that Akiyama was just having trouble tracking the ball early in 2019 but fixed the problem by year’s end. But it would be no surprise that a center fielder on the wrong side of 30 would be losing a step defensively and on the basepaths. If Akiyama has to move to a corner outfield spot, then he’s no good to the Cubs.
Of course, while NPB is the second-best baseball league in the world, it’s really not at the same level as MLB. The scouts seem to think that Akiyama would be able to adjust to MLB, but there’s always that level of doubt.
The Cubs are one of four teams listed as having scouted Akiyama this past season. So they are interested. Seibu has made it clear that they want Akiyama back and have reportedly made an offer to him in the five-year, $23 million range. While the Cubs would clearly not want to hand Akiyama a five-year deal, a three-year deal in the $24 million range would be affordable. If Akiyama wants to play in MLB, he’s not going to argue about overall contract value. This is his last chance if he wants to test himself in MLB.
Three other teams that we know about (Padres, Diamondbacks and Mariners) are also known to be scouting Akiyama. There may be more, so if the Cubs are interested, their biggest competition may come from other MLB teams and not Seibu.
Also, this may not mean anything, but most articles on Akiyama include this trick-hitting video.
The other OF who is supposedly considering a jump to MLB is Shogo Akiyama. He doesn't have Tsutsugoh's power upside but he's the more complete player, and he can do this. pic.twitter.com/5LvgTrjwdC— Patrick Newman (@npbtracker) October 8, 2019
The Cubs are going to have to get creative if they’re going to solve their outfield problems for the 2020 season. While maybe Akiyama won’t be the answer, it would be malpractice if he wasn’t under serious consideration by the Cubs’ front office.
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