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During a media scrum on Wednesday, exactly a week before the end of his first regular season in Major League Baseball, Seiya Suzuki was asked the question onlookers have wondered from the day he signed with the Cubs on a five-year, $85 million pact to now: “Are you an All-Star player going forward?”
“At this stage, it’s where the best of the best are,” Suzuki said through interpreter Toy Matsushita. “You can learn from a lot [of them], and I know what’s needed to be able to be one of the best. I’m going to work on that during the offseason.”
It’s a valid question.
Suzuki was one of the hottest commodities over the offseason with a number of suitors looking to bring him into the fold. On the day he met the media at the Cubs spring training complex in Mesa, Ariz., he said he’d “always wanted to be the No. 1 player, and I feel like this is the chance for me right now.”
Well, to be the No. 1 player, he had to prove he could do it in MLB. Thus far, that hasn’t particularly panned out if you look at his overall line. After Saturday’s 2-1 win over the Reds, Suzuki is hitting .267 with a .785 OPS and a 120 wRC+. Those are certainly respectable numbers, but not ones that scream “All-Star” yet.
But that may be the keyword: yet.
President of baseball operations Jed Hoyer said when Suzuki first signed that they were expecting an adjustment period this season, and he repeated that claim throughout the season as Suzuki went through the ups and downs of his rookie year. The adjustment period arrived after a first month that saw Suzuki earn the National League’s Rookie of the Month for April with a 158 wRC+, as that dropped significantly to just a 73 wRC+ in May. Then, Suzuki missed all of June due to a left ring finger sprain, taking away important time for his adjustment to MLB.
“He’s still super young and [in] his first year in the league,” manager David Ross said. “I would’ve liked to have seen, like we all would have, him stay healthy the entire year and see what that looks like.”
He’s managed to stay off the injured list since and only missed time recently while he went back to Japan to attend the birth of his first child. As he’s got a nearly three-month stretch to make more adjustments to big league pitching, the numbers again fluctuated.
Clearly, that adjustment has been a year-long process for Suzuki. He’s talked all along about the higher velocities of pitchers at this level being one of the most challenging aspects of the adjustment period. But there are other things that don’t show up on FanGraphs or Baseball-Reference but that have affected his jump to the majors as well.
“You gotta put into perspective just being in a different country,” Suzuki said. “You gotta get used to a new language, a new culture, a new atmosphere, and I think that’s been one of the huge factors of me being able to succeed here. And recently, I’ve been able to adapt to it pretty easily than before, so I think that’s one of the most important things to get used to.”
He isn’t wrong. His numbers have skyrocketed as he nears the end of his first season in the big leagues.
Over his last 30 games, Suzuki is slashing .337/.410/.558. He’s got a 172 wRC+ in that stretch, which is the third-best mark among NL hitters with at least 100 plate appearances. It’s certainly not a year-long sample, but it’s one that’s giving the Cubs hope he’s gotten through those adjustments — both on and off the field — and will be ready to hit the ground running come next season.
“Numbers-wise, I feel like I’m not satisfied. I feel like I can do a little better,” Suzuki said. “But I think the most important thing is I’m getting used to life here, and that’s going to be a huge benefit for me next year — baseball-wise, too. I’m excited for what I can do next year.”
But again, the question comes back to this: Can Suzuki be an All-Star at this level, the kind the Cubs believed and still do believe they were getting when they invested nearly $100 million to bring him over from Japan?
“I mean, I think he has potential to be,” Ross said. “I think you saw what he’s capable of early on. I think the league adjusted, and he took a minute to adjust back. Feels like he’s a pretty solid player once he came back from being injured. I know he’s a worker and puts in the work to be the best he possibly can. … There’s definitely real signs in there of an All-Star-caliber player.”
Yes, the Cubs have a lot of faith in Suzuki. But they kind of have to, considering the years and dollars they’ll be putting in to have him be the starting right fielder of a competitive roster. Whether he likes it or not — and whether he goes through more adjustment periods or not — the leash is getting shorter.
He got to hit the ground running on learning what it takes to play in the big leagues during a season the Cubs weren’t expected to be competing for a playoff spot. But there’s certainly reason to believe — with a productive offseason and a few jumps from players already on the roster — that the Cubs can be a much more competitive team in 2023.
And that’s when they’ll need Suzuki to produce many more highlights like his game-winning solo shot on Saturday. They’ll need him to play like the All-Star the know he can be.
Suzuki certainly has that potential. Starting next season, he needs that potential to produce All-Star-level results.
“I’m just excited to be part of the team next year,” Suzuki said. “But I think for me, what I’m going to do is just be able to do my part to do whatever I can to contribute to the team. I think that’s what’s most important.”
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