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MESA, Ariz. — “Hello, my name is Seiya Suzuki. Nice to meet you.”
All Seiya Suzuki needed to do was say those 10 simple words, and he already began to endear himself to those around the Cubs’ universe. The newest player to officially sign with the North Siders, a 27-year-old superstar from the Hiroshima Toyo Carp of Nippon Professional Baseball in Japan, was at Sloan Park, ready to meet the media that will follow his transition to the highest level of professional baseball.
News of the signing with Chicago had already been reported Wednesday morning, but it wasn’t until Friday that the team made it officially official: Seiya Suzuki, the most sought-after international player on the market, was going to play for the Chicago Cubs.
The scene inside the training complex itself was impressive enough.
A row of cameras sat in front of the table that would eventually seat Suzuki, his translator, Toy Matsushita, and Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer. A number of photographers were seated on the floor, and even more reporters, both Japanese media members and local ones from Chicago, stood around the room where Suzuki would be introduced to the world as the newest Cub.
Just after 12 p.m. MST, in walked the trio who ended up answering questions for the next half hour. Hoyer wore a buttoned-up shirt, Matsushita was decked out in Cubs gear. And there was Suzuki, with a Cubs cap on his head, a classic white Cubs home uniform with his name on the back, and underneath that name, the No. 27.
So, Seiya, why’d you pick No. 27?
“Mike Trout … I love you,” Suzuki said, getting a round of laughter from the media assembled around him.
That was only the second time Suzuki spoke English during the press conference, but in a way, it perfectly displayed his personality and his love for the game in just five words. It took just one interaction with the media, and Suzuki has probably become one of the players Cubs fans are most excited to hear from already.
And after a much longer road than expected to get to where he was on Friday, Suzuki is certainly excited, too.
Before ‘the meeting’
It took just a few days after Suzuki was posted by Hiroshima on Nov. 22 for Hoyer and Co. to secure a meeting. That initial presentation happened over Zoom. And as has become clear over the past two years, a Zoom presentation can be a somewhat difficult thing to do.
“Before the lockout, there were 12 teams that were interested,” said Suzuki’s agent, Joel Wolfe, of Wasserman. “We did eight Zoom calls, doing two-a-days, because it had to go fast. They each got about an hour, hour and a quarter. I actually felt bad for a lot of the teams because imagine trying to persuade a guy in an hour to do it.”
Still, Hoyer felt like the meeting went well. Wolfe made it clear that there would be no agreement before the lockout, and even though he said that some teams did try to get Suzuki to sign before they had to cut off all communication, the Cubs respected that Suzuki would not sign that quickly and let the work stoppage start without making an offer. But, Hoyer made sure to tell Wolfe to keep Chicago in mind until they could begin the recruiting process again.
“Jed called me at 10 o’clock the night of the lockout and said, ‘Don’t forget about us. We will be waiting for you on the other side,'” Wolfe said.
That “other side” wouldn’t come for 99 days, which could’ve sunk Suzuki’s hopes at playing for a major league team in 2022.
NPB’s posting process involves a 30-day negotiating period for a player to sign with an MLB team. If that period goes by without a deal, the player’s rights revert back to the NPB team. The lockout, then, would’ve easily blown past the 30-day window, but fortunately for Suzuki, NPB allowed a pause on his window, something Wolfe said hadn’t been done before.
So, the only thing for Suzuki to worry about was how long it would be until he could start meeting with teams again.
“Obviously, (before) the lockout, I got the chance, the opportunity to talk to many teams (and) negotiate with them,” Suzuki said through Matsushita. “They valued me very highly, but when we got into the lockout, obviously, we couldn’t talk to any teams, and so I just did what I could do at that moment. And obviously, I just wanted to be 100 percent in terms of my condition.”
After 99 days, the lockout ended and teams were free to open up communication with Suzuki again. The Cubs pulled out all the stops, with Wolfe immediately getting emails and team representatives showed up to UCLA, where Suzuki would work out.
Suzuki was well aware of the Cubs’ interest, but he also wanted to learn about the team from another Japanese superstar who made his way to Chicago: Yu Darvish.
Though Darvish’s team, the Padres, were reportedly one of the suitors for Suzuki, Darvish gave Suzuki a ringing endorsement of his former baseball home.
“He told (me) the city was great, they have a really great fan base and (I’m) just gonna love it here,” Suzuki said.
With that stamp of approval, a Monday night meeting was set up with the Cubs.
After reports of a scheduled meeting between the Cubs and Suzuki came out on Monday, few details emerged, but it went something like this:
The Cubs camp, which included Hoyer, manager David Ross and chairman Tom Ricketts, met at a Japanese restaurant in Los Angeles called Hayama with Suzuki’s group. And that meeting, one that wasn’t a conversation in a boardroom but one spent in a less formal environment over dinner, was where both sides began to envision that there could be a deal to be done.
“I think we convinced the Cubs, by having such a great environment and great food and letting them see a more personal side of Seiya,” Wolfe said. “They really connected. David Ross was amazing at the meeting, and I think Seiya immediately felt connected. Jed, obviously as you’ve seen, is terrific in the meetings, and Mr. Ricketts… Actually, coming out of the lockout, I would not say that the feeling between players and agents towards MLB and ownership was the warmest it’s ever been, but Mr. Ricketts was extremely impressive.”
The meeting itself was the typical recruitment meeting. Both sides asked questions, both sides gave answers. And apparently, both were very well prepared for what the other side wanted to know.
When Suzuki had questions about the weather, for example, Hoyer jumped out of his chair and produced… well, he produced weather charts.
“They had these charts showing how great the weather was in Chicago, especially if you take out April and September,” Wolfe said, “and then they showed him comparisons between Chicago and Hiroshima. And then Chicago and San Diego. They had an idea of other teams that were interested, and Seiya really appreciated that.”
Unbeknownst to the Cubs group at the meeting, they also had a surprise recruiter working on Suzuki behind the scenes.
“I told Nick Madrigal that we were meeting with the Cubs, and that (Seiya) had an issue about the weather,” said Wolfe, who also represents Madrigal. “So Nick made all these signs, he hand wrote them, and then he took pictures of himself holding the signs and then sent them to show Seiya. And Seiya loved it.”
“I’m gonna get him some art lessons,” Ross joked. “Those came through in the middle of the meeting from Joel, and we saw those. It gave me a good chuckle.”
But has Hoyer approached the second baseman about joining the recruiting team?
“No, I think we’re going to have to have a meeting pretty soon here,” Madrigal said. “I need a raise or something.”
After the presentation, while those present were hanging around and chatting, Hoyer and Wolfe went off to the side to talk one on one, and Hoyer made Wolfe an offer for Suzuki. Wolfe took Suzuki outside and told him the offer. Suzuki didn’t accept that offer right then and there, but he did do two things: One, he gave Wolfe permission to make a counteroffer, and two, he canceled the rest of his meetings for the week. By then, Suzuki knew he wanted to be a Cub, and in the early hours of Tuesday morning, Chicago called back to complete the deal.
Before Suzuki would sign, though, there was one caveat: He needed to see Chicago himself.
So he and a few others made the trip up to the North Side, were shown around the city and were given a tour of his new home ballpark. The trip sealed the deal. Suzuki decided he wanted Chicago to be the new home for him and his wife, Airi.
“At least now, he’s been at Wrigley, he’s been in Chicago recently,” Hoyer said. “I think that that’s got to help. You’re not landing the plane on April 5 having no idea what you’re about to see other than in pictures.”
“The Cubs do a very good job,” Wolfe said. “He saw the city, he saw where he would live. He absolutely loved it.”
The group then made the trip back, and the contract was signed Thursday night.
The five-year, $85 million deal (which will be $99.625 million when taking the posting fee into account), was the biggest that Hoyer has given out since taking his job in November 2020. It didn’t surpass Masahiro Tanaka’s seven-year, $155 million contract as the largest given to a Japanese player, but as Wolfe learned through the process, that wasn’t the most important thing to Suzuki. He just wanted to be in a place where he would be the most comfortable, where he and Airi wouldn’t have to worry about living conditions, and where he would just have to worry about playing baseball. And as it turned out, that was in Chicago.
Could Wolfe had gotten Suzuki (and thus, himself) more money elsewhere?
“Possibly,” he said, “but I wanted to do what was best for him and not what was best for me. At the end, he told me, ‘Get it done. This is where I want to go.'”
Suzuki got to Sloan Park for the first time on Friday, met his new teammates and started getting acclimated to his new environment. When he first stepped into the locker room, he was in awe that the players he’d watched on TV were right there in front of him.
“I feel like I need to get better as a player,” Suzuki said. “Just meeting all the players in the locker room a couple minutes ago, I feel like I need to start hitting the gym more, because they’re really big.”
Following his introduction, Suzuki met the rest of the team, and he joined his new teammates for their workout session.
When he finally got a bat in his hands, Suzuki got to show the team exactly why he was so sought after this offseason. The power he showed with what looked like an effortless and free swing during batting practice was a short display of what the Cubs hope are big things to come.
“I’ve seen some highlights here and there,” Madrigal said of Suzuki prior to the workout. “Joel sent me some videos of him swinging in the cage, and you can just instantly see how much talent he has. It looks effortless to him, swinging the bat and the way he moves, and I’m excited to see him out on the field today.”
Now, the Cubs’ biggest job is making Suzuki comfortable, both on and off the field.
Off the field, it’ll be the job of just about everyone on and around the team to make sure Suzuki is comfortable.
There are no other Japanese players on the roster, nobody else who has personally gone through the same transition phase that Suzuki is about to go through himself. So, it’s up to those around him to make sure he’s taken care of while he’s still getting acclimated.
“We’re gonna do all that we can to help facilitate him being comfortable,” Ross said. “We’ll have communication with him, talk through things. He knows, I think from our interactions before now and he knows moving forward, that just come in and ask. Anything we can do, we’re here to help.”
On the field comfort might be a bit easier of a thing for Chicago to control. Suzuki was projected to be a corner outfielder when he was posted, and with how the roster is currently constructed, right field makes the most sense. Plus, Jason Heyward, the incumbent Cubs right fielder, has already proven he’s willing to move around in the past.
“We’ve talked to Jason already about that, so I think we will have Suzuki play right,” Hoyer said. “I think a big part of that is, obviously Jason is exceptional, but it’s just trying to transition offense, defense, culturally, and that kind of takes one thing off his plate.”
“That guy wants to win and will do anything possible for the team,” Ross said about Heyward earlier in the week. “I’ve never been around somebody more pro than he is.”
With Chicago not among the favorites to make a World Series run this season, that will provide time for the team to be patient while Suzuki adjusts to the U.S. That might be a challenge, considering the differences in the game he’s coming into versus the game he’s leaving.
“Obviously, the pitchers here are different from Japan,” Suzuki said. “The height of the pitchers, the velocity of the balls that they pitch here is different. But I’m not really scared to adjust to the game here. I’m just gonna start inputting what I need and learn from my at-bats and just get used to the game here.”
However, this is what Suzuki wants to do. He said his interest in playing in MLB grew when Hiroki Kuroda went back to Japan in 2015, and from there, he’s worked to get to this moment. There’s never been any question that this is a challenge he wants to take on.
“This is where I wanted to get to, so obviously, it wasn’t (a) tough (decision),” Suzuki said about leaving NPB. “Obviously, I’m just very, very excited for what’s ahead of me.”
Suzuki seems like a perfect fit for Hoyer’s idea of competing now while not sacrificing the future. He’s experienced and talented enough that he should contribute to the Cubs right off the bat, and he’s young enough that he’ll still be in his prime when some of the high-profile prospects in the system break into the big leagues.
A season ago, Chicago’s front office sold off most of the key pieces from its last championship team. Now, the Cubs are bringing in a player who they hope will be a key piece on the next one.
“We’ve talked a lot about building the next great Cubs team,” Hoyer said. “We signed Seiya to a five-year contract, because we believe he’ll play a significant role in that success now and that success in the future.”