As the Padres enter a crucial offseason with their entire front office on the hot seat, Japanese center fielder Shogo Akiyama could be a worthwhile acquisition for a club trying to exit a rebuild.
The San Diego Padres enter the off-season with more questions than answers, much to the frustration of fans and ownership alike. The Padres hope to end the rebuilding phase and shift a team built around core pieces. Manny Machado and young phenoms, including Fernando Tatis, Jr., and Chris Paddack, will bring this team into contention. The front office needs to balance the “win now” needs of today and the future they’ve been stockpiling for.
The outfield lineup was imbalanced last year, featuring several powerful right-handed bats but lacking a reliable left-handed option. The team also missed a regular player in the outfielder with a contact-oriented approach. In the long term, the Padres hope they solved that problem with the acquisition of Taylor Trammell from Cincinnati in a three-team deal, which sent fan favorite Franmil Reyes to Cleveland, and pitcher Trevor Bauer from one end of Ohio to the other.
But Trammell, despite a promising end to the season for the Texas League champion Amarillo Sod Poodles, remains likely a year or two away from roaming center field in San Diego every day, if ever. With the Padres’ 40 man roster at 51 players entering the World Series, it’s difficult to call any player outside the absolute core a lock to be a Friar long-term. As A.J. Preller seeks an immediate, substantial reconstruction of the roster, few players are safe.
But should Trammell remain in the Padres organization with the belief he’s the future in center field, a stopgap option with a similar approach could ease Preller’s concerns with roster construction, without necessitating the trade of further prospects for what could be a temporary tour of duty as a starting player.
Enter Shogo Akiyama. The left-handed-hitting center fielder has played his entire career for the Seibu Lions of Nippon Professional Baseball, where he has carved out a reputation as a professional hitter with a reliable approach, focused on contact, though not without power. His defense has received solid ratings, although recent reports have his speed and defense beginning to decline as he approaches his age 32 season.
The key to Akiyama is he is an international free agent. Unlike countryman slugger Yoshitomo Tsutsugo, Akiyama is not bound by the posting system agreed upon between NPB and MLB. Akiyama is free to sign with any club in any league in any country, bolstering his value stateside, where his risk will likely be lowered.
It should be noted, the Lions have indicated they will pursue Akiyama with a long term offer, and other clubs in NPB could pursue him. Still, a Yahoo! Sports article reported MLB teams have taken a clear interest in Akiyama, with the Mariners, Padres, Diamondbacks, and Cubs believed to have taken a look at the potential leadoff hitter.
The risk to Akiyama is he’s a player whose value is derived partly from speed and defense, and both those skillsets are believed by scouts to be at the beginning of their respective declines. It’s also never clear how a player who has spent their entire career in another country will have their skillset translate to Major League Baseball.
While Ichiro was able to be a legend in both countries, even his .943 OPS in Japan became a .757 in the US, although his decline happened entirely in MLB, which must be considered. His best single-season OPS in Japan was .999, while in the US, it was .869. His career-high for home runs in NPB was 25, while in MLB, it was 15. In 3,619 at-bats in NPB, Ichiro hit 118 home runs. In 9,934 at-bats in MLB, Ichiro managed 117 home runs.
Some believe Shogo Akiyama is a fair comparison to Kosuke Fukudome. Fukudome arrived in Chicago in 2008 with the unsustainable hype he would end the Cubs’ century-long curse at the age of 31 after a successful career with NPB’s Chunichi Dragons, including a 2003 season in which he hit 34 home runs, batting .313 with a 1.005 OPS.
In America, Fukudome failed to live up to those lofty expectations, but lost in the disappointment is the fact he wasn’t a terrible player. While the transition to MLB sapped his power, he still posted a .375 OBP in 2009 and was a 2.1 WAR player that season. He was never a star, and he was overpaid, which will be a cautionary tale for clubs who are eyeing Akiyama (one of which happens to be the post-Curse Cubs).
The consensus thus far is Akiyama could be a capable leadoff hitter, something the Padres could use, even if for a year or two. Leadoff has been a constant problem in the Preller Era, to the point that not only did rising star Tatis Jr. see himself used to set the table often in 2019, but so did diminished veteran Ian Kinsler. If Padres top brass views Trammell as the lefty-swinging answer to center field the leadoff spot, they will need a player in that profile who can do the job until he’s ready. Akiyama may perhaps be that player.
There is obvious risk associated with Akiyama, but the Padres are at the perfect point to take that risk, so long as it isn’t on a short-term deal. The club’s payroll isn’t breaking the bank yet, and won’t for a while unless something changes. While it would be prudent to save for the future, a short-term move like signing Akiyama could do just that, while not costing any prospect capital, which could be retained or traded for other pieces. If Akiyama can contribute to the current success, buying A.J. Preller and his staff time to build to an even better future, he could be one of the best signing Preller makes: one which saves his job.
It would all come down to if Akiyama’s NPB slash line of .301/.376/.454 translates to the American game.