Six years after he played for Team Japan in the 2017 World Baseball Classic, Seiya Suzuki was committed to representing his country once again next month.
“It was actually one of my objectives to play at the WBC,” Suzuki said via interpreter Toy Matsushita last week at Cubs spring training in Mesa, Ariz. “This year, there’s a lot of good players that are going to be in the tournament. So, I talked to the manager for Team Japan, and he gave me some really good words and it really motivated me to start a little early this spring and play for Japan.”
Suzuki hit .214 for his country as the team made it all the way to the semifinal against Team USA, where Japan was eliminated in a 2-1 loss. But back then, Suzuki was only a 22-year-old. This time around, he’s six years older. He’s in the prime of his career. He’s got a full season of facing the best pitching in the world under his belt.
Listed at 182 pounds in 2022, Suzuki said he put on 20 pounds this offseason. That was of course to help him take another step forward in his second season with the Cubs, but it also should’ve benefitted him in the WBC.
Key word: “should’ve.”
Suzuki was scratched from the Cubs’ first Cactus League game Saturday with left oblique tightness. The injury was severe enough to warrant further testing, which ultimately led to Suzuki officially withdrawing from the World Baseball Classic on Monday. And then Tuesday, reports out of Mesa said Suzuki had been diagnosed with a moderate left oblique strain.
“I know a lot of people were kind of excited to see me out there playing,” Suzuki told reporters in Mesa about his decision to sit out the WBC. “So it’s just a really unfortunate decision. It’s just very unfortunate.”
It’s obviously a very disappointing outcome for Suzuki. His home country’s culture is very much still a part of his life. Getting to represent Japan was something he took great pride in. It shouldn’t be overlooked that, above everything else, this injury hurts Suzuki most.
But we must also take into account how this will affect the Cubs’ early-season plans. This isn’t an injury where Cubs manager David Ross can give Suzuki a couple days off his feet and he’s good to go. There’s currently no timeline for Suzuki’s return to action, but Opening Day is legitimately in jeopardy.
So, where does that leave the Cubs in terms of right-field options?
Ian Happ and Cody Bellinger are essentially set to open the season in left and center field, respectively, so they aren’t under consideration. But if Suzuki isn’t ready to join them on Opening Day, here are the cases for the other options:
- Trey Mancini has played 772 2/3 innings in right over his career. Though he was brought in this winter in an expected first base/designated hitter role, he did have a 26.1 UZR/150 in limited time in right field in 2022. He could take over the position for a shorter period of time.
- Patrick Wisdom has played just 61 1/3 career innings in right field, and he’s also expected to be part of the third-base rotation, but he’s still another option. Ross hasn’t been afraid to put him in the outfield the last two years. Wisdom could be a fill-in right fielder if need be.
- Nelson Velázquez struggled defensively last year, but he does profile best as a right fielder. He seemed to be headed to Triple-A Iowa to begin the year, but if Suzuki isn’t ready to go, Velázquez could be given another shot at the spot.
- Ross likes Christopher Morel as a utilityman, but this could be an opportunity for more playing time for the 23-year-old. Though right field wasn’t one of the five positions Morel manned last year, his arm strength (99th percentile, per Baseball Savant) projects well for the spot. He did rate negative defensively in the outfield in 2022, but perhaps another year of experience can help him improve.
- Mike Tauchman and Ben DeLuzio are both in camp as non-roster invitees. Tauchman has recored three defensive runs saved in 309 1/3 big league innings in right field. DeLuzio only played 22 games in the majors after he debuted last year, but he does have 480 1/3 minor league innings in right and would also bring solid speed off the bench. The Cubs would need to make a 40-man move to add either to the big league club, but they’re both options.
Though the Cubs will figure out a way to make up for the loss of Suzuki if he indeed is out to start the year, that is less than their ideal scenario. This is the player they paid nearly $100 million to bring in last spring. As he enters his second season in Major League Baseball, the Cubs want to see him take another step.
As of now, it’s unclear when Suzuki will make his return. But for someone they want to see big things from, the Cubs will make sure to bring him back when he’s good and ready.
“The goal for us is when he’s back, we don’t lose him again,” Ross told reporters Tuesday. “Pushing it toward some date that we all look forward to doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. We want him to get back completely healthy. If that’s Opening Day, great. If it’s five days in, great. If it’s two weeks in, fine.”