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Almost as soon as Seiya Suzuki signed with the Cubs two weeks ago, the front office and coaching staff alike were already looking to rein in some early expectations for Chicago’s new $85 million star.
Suzuki was a highly sought after player, but he was also a player coming over from Nippon Professional Baseball in Japan. He had been working out on his own, but despite signing his deal on March 17 and reporting to spring training a day later, he was still somewhat behind in ramping up. So, the Cubs stressed that patience with Suzuki, whether that patience be to adjusting to Major League Baseball or just patience to getting him into a spring training game, was going to be particularly important.
“I look at this as, we did a five-year deal for a reason,” president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer said during Suzuki’s introductory press conference. “This is an investment in him and his future, and if there are some growing pains or some assimilation challenges, that’s fine with us, because we believe that, once he gets through that, we’re really excited about what we’ll get. I think we have to be a little bit patient on that.”
“Only he knows where he’s at, and how fast to move that, we’re just going to keep that open communication,” manager David Ross added later that day. “I told him we’ll slow things down. He just went through a big process and he’s flown all over the world in recent time, and so I want to make sure that he’s rested and ready to go, and we’re going to do it on his time and not any kind of artificial deadline.”
The beginning to his time in Cactus League play certainly showed why that patience was necessary.
His first two at-bats on Friday ended in called strike threes, and he’d gone 0-for-8 with five strikeouts by the time he stepped to the plate with two outs and a runner on first in the fourth inning against the Mariners on Wednesday. But, the team had seen Suzuki hit throughout his first couple of weeks in camp. An adjustment period was expected, but with a swing and a plate approach like his, Suzuki’s teammates knew he’d eventually do something impressive.
“I’ve seen some highlights here and there,” Nick Madrigal, who was standing on first during Suzuki’s fourth-inning at-bat, said the day the deal became official. “Joel (Wolfe, both Madrigal and Suzuki’s agent) 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.”
So, Suzuki stepped into the box in the bottom of the fourth, ready to make something happen against Seattle’s Marco Gonzales.
Pitch No. 1: Suzuki flailed at one on the outside corner.
Pitch No. 2: Suzuki let it go by for a ball.
Pitch No. 3: Well, just watch what Suzuki did to Gonzales’ 1-1 offering.
Suzuki drilled the third pitch of the at-bat to deep left-center for his first homer and, fittingly, his first base hit in a Cubs uniform. After a few games without that first base knock, his slight pose directly after launching one over the wall showed a bit of what will make Suzuki special.
“It felt really good to be able to hit it in front of my home fans,” Suzuki told reporters in Mesa, Arizona, through his interpreter, Toy Matsushita. “They were cheering me on. It felt amazing. When I went back to the dugout, the coaches, the teammates, they welcomed me and they were very, very, very happy as well. So, it just felt really good.”
However, it wasn’t just Suzuki giving Cubs fans — and the Cubs’ coaching staff — something to cheer about on Friday.
A number of hitters had solid games at the plate that, with just over a week between Chicago’s spring training game versus Seattle and its Opening Day matchup with Milwaukee, should have Ross and Co. feeling confident that those hitters are just about ready to take the field on April 7.
To kick off what ended up as a four-run inning, Ian Happ knocked a one-out single into center for his first hit of spring training.
Happ, still working his way back from February elbow surgery, was in the designated hitter spot after finally getting to go out in left field on Sunday and Tuesday. The 27-year-old has maintained that he’ll be ready to start in left on Opening Day, though with the DH now in the National League full time, there should certainly be times early on where Happ finds himself in that spot to ensure he gets the necessary time to rest his elbow.
“He’s been around a little bit, knows his body,” Ross said about Happ earlier in spring training. “He’s another hard worker that’s put in the rehab and gotten his physical therapy. Swing looks good. We’ve got the DH, so there’s a lot of confidence that in some form or fashion, he’ll be ready for Opening Day.”
Two batters after Happ’s single, he showed off his instincts and a bit of speed by motoring all the way around from first base and sliding safely into home ahead of the throw on Nico Hoerner’s RBI double.
Hoerner started at shortstop on Wednesday, and that two-out double down the left field line was the first of his duo of two-baggers. Short is the spot he could’ve taken over full-time had injuries not limited him to just five games there after Javier Báez was dealt at last season’s trade deadline. This year, he’s expected to split time at the position with newly signed Andrelton Simmons while also shifting over to second and likely seeing some time in the outfield.
However, with Simmons experiencing right shoulder soreness that’s limited him to light throwing sessions over the past couple of days, Hoerner will likely be plugged in at short next Thursday. So, seeing Hoerner start to slap hits for extra bases should instill some confidence in him for Ross.
After Hoerner’s fourth-inning double, Madrigal stepped to the plate.
As we’ve talked about on the CHGO Cubs show numerous times, Madrigal might be Ross’ best option at the top of the order. His career average (.317), his solid on-base percentage (.358), his very low strikeout rate (7.4 percent) and his elite contact rate (91.8 percent) give him the profile of a solid leadoff hitter. He doesn’t own the wheels of a traditional leadoff man, as his sprint speed ranked just outside the top 25 among all second baseman (28.1 ft/s, tied for 26th per Baseball Savant) in 2021, but still, that sits above the major league average.
And with the way he drove in Hoerner to cap off the four-run fourth, a consistent contact bat like his could be one heck of a table setter.
Madrigal fell down 0-2 in the count, but with his plate discipline, he easily made it 2-2 by laying off consecutive balls. Then, on a pitch that looked to be coming in on him, Madrigal stayed compact, got his hands around quickly, got the barrel to the ball and deposited it into center for the RBI before scoring on Suzuki’s home run three pitches later.
The 25-year-old will never be the power hitter that some of his Cubs predecessors were, but his ability to put the ball in play consistently could breed success as a leadoff hitter.
“I’ve really just worked on trying to be the best version of myself,” Madrigal said on March 13. “I’ve understood for years now that I’m not going to be the power hitter in the lineup, so I’ve really tried to work the counts, get on base any way I can, steal bases. I think that helps the team out more.
“Some teams value it, and I’ve always felt like I can make an impact in a game that way. I think there’s plenty of stuff I can improve on, but I’m just focused on what I can do. Getting on base is my ultimate goal.”
Just for good measure, here’s how Clint Frazier added to the festivities two innings later:
Frazier, a reclamation project of sorts who signed a one-year, $1.5 million deal with Chicago, is another player that the Cubs hope can develop anywhere close to his ceiling. As the No. 5 overall pick in the 2013 MLB Draft, the 27-year-old has plenty of potential that was hindered all of last season by the effects of his recently publicly revealed second concussion.
That line drive homer surely put as big of a smile on the faces of everyone in the dugout as it did on Frazier’s as he rounded first base. It might also be a sign of things to come for the player who will be called upon to split time with Happ in left field (to help him rest his elbow, yes, but as CHGO’s very own Brendan Miller points out, maybe for other reasons, too).
Those performances, combined with two-hit days from Frank Schwindel and Jonathan Villar, add up to a very good day at the plate for those seven members on Chicago’s hitting crew. Considering they all should be expected to spend at least some time with a bat in their hands on Opening Day, it’s a positive sign for Ross when he goes to assemble that lineup.
Yes, it’s spring training, and in spring training, the results take a back seat to the process.
But when the process results in a combined .524 average (11-for-21), eight runs and seven RBIs between those seven players, it’s certainly something for the group to hang its hat on with the regular season just seven days away.
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