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MESA, Ariz. — Just two days ago, Jed Hoyer told the media assembled inside the Chicago Cubs spring training complex that he and the front office were involved in talks with free agents that one might consider to be “big.”
“We’re having a lot of conversations. I’ve done this too long to assume that anything gets across the finish line,” the Cubs president of baseball operations said on Monday when asked about other possible free-agent additions. “You try to keep a lot of balls in the air, and some of those may be — as you guys would deem — ‘significant.'”
Now, that all might not have meant all that much at the time. The Cubs play in a huge market and have money to spend this offseason. And really, even if they weren’t so far under the new competitive-balance tax, they should still be reaching out to and having conversations with “significant” free agents regardless.
It was also tough before Wednesday to take the “significant” conversations talk at face value, as Chicago’s post-lockout free agent haul consisted of Andrelton Simmons on a one-year deal, old friend Jesse Chavez as a minor league, non-roster invite and veteran righty Chris Martin also reportedly on a one-year deal. Realistically, calling those three ‘significant’ signings would be a stretch.
That’s why I was surprised that when I woke up to my 6 a.m. (Arizona time) alarm this morning, a report from ESPN 1000 and NBC Sports Chicago’s David Kaplan was one of the first things I saw when I looked at my phone:
Uh, OK. Well that seems pretty “significant.”
A later report from The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal updated the total of Seiya Suzuki’s deal to $85 million over five years, plus the posting fee to be paid to the Hiroshima Toyo Carp of Nippon Professional Baseball, which will total $14.625 million. Still, for a player who drew interest from teams across the majors, the Cubs getting him to agree to come to Chicago is exactly the “significant” signing Hoyer must have been eluding to hours before the club reportedly met with Suzuki’s camp.
“What I know about the direction that we’re going and the front office wants to take us, is they’re going to try to accrue as much talent as they possibly can, whether it’s at the big league level or the minor league level,” manager David Ross said. “We’re going to try to get as much talent in this organization as we possibly can, because that’s what winning organizations have.”
Suzuki, a Japanese baseball star, certainly seems like he fits that bill.
Last season with Hiroshima, Suzuki hit .317 with a 1.069 OPS, 38 home runs and 88 RBIs, and just three seasons ago, he stole 25 bases in 134 games. He’s consistently produced over nine seasons with the Carp, posting a .315/.414/.570 slash with 182 homers and earning himself five NPB All-Star selections and five Gold Gloves in the process.
It can be hard to assume that those numbers will translate to Major League Baseball, but Dan Szymborski of FanGraphs projects Suzuki to hit .287 in 2022 with a 124 OPS+ and 2.6 WAR. If Suzuki can match or even exceed those projections, it would be a solid start to his Chicago career.
Because the deal wasn’t official as of Wednesday night, the Cubs kept it somewhat tight-lipped (or tight-lipped enough that Simmons said he hadn’t heard about it after the team’s workout, at least). Ross didn’t mention Suzuki by name, but he did describe the feeling of being a part of those rumors.
“The rumors are exciting, right?” he said. “All that stuff is good to see and hear. We’ll wait ’til things are official, but yeah, I mean, the player has a unique skill set that I think has value in Major League Baseball. A lot of teams are after him, so the fact that our name is on the top of the rumor mill, that’s exciting.”
The Cubs also announced the signing of reliever David Robertson to a one-year contract, and they reportedly brought in former Pirate Steven Brault on a major league deal. Both pitchers would probably fall along the lines of low-risk signings. Hoyer talked about pitching depth being the biggest focus of this short “offseason” period, and if things go well, Robertson and Brault will provide that.
Suzuki definitely doesn’t provide any pitching depth, but the move does meet another criteria Hoyer set for this offseason: Signing Suzuki doesn’t sacrifice Chicago’s plans for the future.
“I think, obviously, when you look at our last I guess 16-18 months, we’ve made a number of moves towards the future,” Hoyer said. “I think it’s undeniable that we are gonna have an eye on the future. I’ve said hundreds of times to you guys, the goal is to build the next great Cubs team.
“In my career, I’ve been around a number of teams who I think were really special. We built that once here, and we want to build that again. I think trying to thread that needle as well as possible. We’re gonna make moves to compete, but certainly, we’re not gonna do things that are inconsistent with what we’ve done over the last 16 months.”
Still just 27 years old, Suzuki is a player in his prime who should definitely help the Cubs be competitive today, but at the same, a five-year contract means he’ll be around for a while. Chicago may not have a realistic shot at a World Series title in 2022, but in the next few seasons after that, many of the Cubs’ top prospects should be up and helping the big league club compete.
And when that happens, Chicago hopes Suzuki will be one of the main pieces of “the next great Cubs team.”
As far as how Suzuki fits on the team now, he should be the top option for right fielder. Incumbent starter Jason Heyward has shown a willingness to move out of his primary position in the past, which would be the best move to allow Suzuki to secure a mostly everyday job in Chicago.
Ian Happ is likely to start in left, but his elbow surgery in February might mean that side of the field is more fluid at the start of the season. So there’ll be room in left and center for some rotation of Happ, Heyward, Rafael Ortega, Michael Hermosillo, Clint Frazier or others.
“I’ve already told the outfielders from Day 1 in camp, I think flexibility is important,” Ross said.
Oh, and if things go right for the Cubs, there’s a realistic scenario this season in which they have a set outfield starting just about every game.
When Suzuki officially makes it to camp, the goal should be to get him ready to be starting in right. You don’t pay a player $85 million without putting him in position to play every single day.
As for the fans who want Chicago to do more, who knows. With the splash the Cubs made Wednesday morning, perhaps there’s another on the way.
“I think the goal is to get as many good players as you possibly can,” Ross said. “The more we can bring talent into camp, the better off we’re going to be overall.”
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