The 2019-20 free agent class is very light on quality center field options. Brett Gardner is the only true center fielder on our top 50 free agents list -- Avisail Garcia can also play the position, if necessary -- and non-top-50 options include Jarrod Dyson and Billy Hamilton. This is not a good winter to need a center fielder.
MLB teams looking for center field help this winter could turn to Japan. According to the Kyodo News, longtime Seibu Lions center fielder Shogo Akiyama is planning to pursue a contract with an MLB team this offseason. The Lions are prepared to make Akiyama a lucrative long-term contract offer in an effort to keep him.
Akiyama, 31, is a five-time All-Star who has twice won the Golden Glove award in center field. (In Japan, Golden Gloves are given for all-around excellence, not just defense like MLB.) Here are Akiyama's recent stats (WAR via DeltaGraphs):
The league average player in Japan's Pacific League hit .252/.326/.392 with a 8.9 percent walk rate and 19.5 percent strikeout rate in 2019, so Akiyama has been performed at a considerably above-average rate the last three years. He's a bona fide star.
Akiyama is one of at least three Japanese players looking to come to MLB this offseason, joining Yokohama DeNA BayStars slugging outfielder Yoshitomo Tsutsugo and Hiroshima Carp slick-fielding infielder Ryosuke Kikuchi. Here is everything you need to know about Akiyama as he seeks a job on this side of the pond.
How good is he?
As the stats suggest, Akiyama is very good, and he's become even more dangerous by developing his power stroke in his late-20s and early-30s. Earlier in his career he was more of a slash-and-dash speed guy. Here's what Kazuto Yamazaki of Baseball Prospectus wrote about Akiyama's game recently:
The speed is particularly notable, as he constantly runs sub-3.90 home-to-first with sub-4.40 turns at first base. Given the wheels, Akiyama is a threat on the basepaths ... he has made adjustments in the swing in the last three years in order to turn himself into a bona-fide force in the lineup. He has increased in-game, over-the-fence power numbers.
Veteran Japanese baseball reporter Jim Allen says Akiyama can "hit for average and power," and adds "now he's just better than average" on the bases and is in a "steady decline" defensively. Allen also notes Akiyama is a Lions captain and a "quiet leader." Here's some video of Akiyama in action:
Gardner is a pretty good MLB comp for Akiyama. They are both left-handed hitters with speed and 20-ish homer power who also add value on the bases and in the field. Gardner may not be the sexiest MLB comp, but he has been a steady 3-4 WAR player for a contending team throughout his career. Whichever team lands Akiyama would sign up for that outcome in a heartbeat.
What about the posting system?
Unlike Tsutsugo and Kikuchi, Akiyama does not have to be posted to come to MLB. He has accrued enough service time to qualify for international free agency. Akiyama is free to negotiate a contract of any size with any team at any time. He is not bound by the posting system at all and will not require any draft pick compensation or financial compensation to the Lions.
Several Japanese position player stars have come to MLB as true free agents in recent years:
- Hideki Matsui, Yankees: Three-year, $21 million contract in 2003.
- Kaz Matsui, Mets: Three-year, $20.1 million contract in 2004.
- Tadahito Iguchi, White Sox: Two-year, $4.95 million contract in 2005.
- Kenji Johjima, Mariners: Three-year, $16.5 million contract in 2006.
- Kosuke Fukudome, Cubs: Four-year, $48 million contract in 2007.
Matsui (Hideki, not Kaz) was a massive success, Iguchi and Johjima were productive big leaguers, and Matsui (Kaz, not Hideki) and Fukudome mostly flopped. In this free-agent climate, a Fukudome-level contract may not be attainable for Akiyama. A smaller three-year deal in the range of Johjima and the Matsuis is more reasonable.
Which teams could be interested?
Not surprisingly, a well-rounded center fielder like Akiyama is already drawing interest from several MLB teams. Here is a roundup of a recent reports:
- Blue Jays: GM Ross Atkins confirmed they have interest in Akiyama, according to Sportsnet's Ben Nicholson-Smith.
- Diamondbacks: "Yeah, we think he's a good player," GM Mike Hazen told Arizona Republic's Nick Piecoro.
- A recent Nikkan Sports report lists the Cubs, D-Backs, Mariners, and Padres as teams that have scouted Akiyama.
Other center field needy teams like the Giants, Indians, Phillies, Rangers, Reds, Rockies, White Sox, and Yankees could have interest in Akiyama, though that is only my speculation. Joel Sherman of the New York Post reports the Akiyama is not high on the Mets' list as they search for a center fielder.
Oh, he's currently hurt
This is kind of a big deal: Akiyama is currently injured. He suffered a broken bone in his right foot during an exhibition game prior to the WBSC Premier 12 tournament late last month, according to MLB.com's Jon Morosi. The severity of the injury and his timetable to return to baseball activities are unknown at this point. MLB teams will undoubtedly scrutinize Akiyama's foot during the free agent courting process, and it could lead to smaller contract offers than expected.