Cubs Make Surprising Move With Seiya Suzuki Signing

Mandi Wright-USA TODAY Sports

When we released our Top 100 Prospects list last month, one of the questions we heard most frequently was, “Where is Seiya Suzuki?” It was the subject of considerable internal debate, but the larger discussion revolved around whether or not the Japanese superstar even belonged on a prospect list.

While in terms of service time and rookie eligibility, Suzuki is technically a prospect, it just doesn’t feel right to rank him amongst unfinished products. He is not a player who requires development, or one where we’re talking about the gap between who he is now and what he can become. At 27, Suzuki is a player in his prime, with an impressive track record of performance at Japan’s highest level since his teens. This is not a prospect; this is an established talent who just hasn’t played in Major League Baseball yet.

That’s about to change. After a flurry of inaccurate Twitter reporting on Tuesday, Suzuki ended all speculation about his future on Wednesday morning by signing with the Cubs on a five-year, $85 million deal (when combined with his posting fee, Chicago will spend nearly $100 million for his services), where he’ll step right into the middle of the lineup as the everyday right fielder.

Suzuki’s performances in Japan have been nothing short of outstanding, with an OPS north of 1.000 in each of the last four seasons, including a career high of 1.073 with Hiroshima in 2021, when he hit .317/.443/.639 in 132 games with 38 home runs. Still, statistical projections for him can be challenging, as is the case with any player who has never been in the big leagues; there are skills, tools and traits that may lead to success elsewhere yet not translate at the game’s highest level. Still, Dan Szymborski gave it his best shot and in the end nearly hit a bullseye with a contract projection of five years and $83 million.

Scouts are just as optimistic as Dan as to Suzuki’s ability to produce in the big leagues. He’s a well-rounded player, but the beginning of any discussion about his potential begins with what he can do with a bat in his hands, and luckily for the Cubs and their fans, there’s a lot to like. He features the much desired combination of excellent swing decisions with a very good contact rate and rarely chases outside the zone, which you can reasonably expect will continue with the Cubs; breaking balls in Japan, while rarely matching the velocity he will see in the majors, do move just as much, if not more.

The biggest question is what will happen in the zone. Suzuki possesses a quick, compact, exceptionally simple swing that features excellent plate coverage from top to bottom. He fits in well with modern baseball’s swing plane obsession and hits most of his balls in the air with a very low groundball rate. But despite his lofty home run totals for Hiroshima, his power falls more into the plus range as opposed to anything overwhelming, and while he uses all fields effectively, most of his over-the-fence shots come from the pull side.

The biggest unanswered question for Suzuki, as is the case with any hitter coming over from Asia, is how he will do against consistent high-end velocity. The kind of radar-gun readings that earn middle-relief work in the big leagues are what players see from closers in Japan, and while the data we do have on him against higher-end fastballs is encouraging, it’s just not a large enough sample size to provide full assuredness of hit tool replication.

Suzuki certainly provides value beyond his hitting prowess as well. While not a base stealer, he does have average wheels and is a good baserunner who frequently can make the two-bag advancement on base hits. He shows good instincts and range in right field, and his arm is plus, but at times lacks accuracy. The baseline expectation is a plug-and-play corner outfielder worth three-plus wins, but there are evaluators out there who believe that the ‘plus’ part of that equation should be significant and take him into the star-level range of 4–5 WAR.

It’s in interesting move for the Cubs, who were not generally seen among the favorites to sign Suzuki heading into the interrupted offseason. After clearing the deck of veterans in 2021 to replenish their system with some very young prospects with very high upside, Chicago is projected to be finish in the low-70s in wins in 2022, with our current playoff odds setting their postseason chances at roughly one in 20. In other words: This is not a move for the present, but one for the latter half of Suzuki’s contract, when he’s hopefully producing in October.

In the short-term, the most interesting thing to watch will be what the Cubs do with incumbent right fielder Jason Heyward. With two years and $44 million left on his contract, he’s impossible to trade without an exceptionally large pay down, and the dynamics of having the most expensive fourth outfielder in baseball might provide some clubhouse challenges as well.

The Cubs are better in the immediacy, but not enough for it to really matter, yet the signing of Suzuki itself shows they have no intention of getting stuck in a rebuilding mode for very long.

Kevin Goldstein is a National Writer at FanGraphs.

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1 year ago

Steamer projection: 142 wRC+
ZiPs projection: 124 OPS+

With the caveat that OPS =/= wRC, you can pretty easily figure out the discrepancy by looking at the OBPs. Steamer thinks his OBP is going to end up around .384; ZiPs around .351. That’s kind of like the difference between Mookie Betts and Jake Cronenworth.

Regardless, this deal makes a lot more sense to me than the Stroman one, which is fine in a vacuum but a little weird given that they’re mostly stocking up on the Rafael Ortegas and Clint Fraziers in the world. Suzuki might not be as good as the contract but he could be better, and at least his prime will overlap with that of Madrigal, Hoerner, and probably Brennan Davis.

1 year ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

They want to maintain some non-negligible probability of competing this year while also setting themselves up for more serious contention in 2023 and 2024. So, they’re buying where they see value, as they did with Stroman (Cubs seem to be more into that finesse profile than the league as a whole, so it made for a natural buying opportunity).

1 year ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

how dare you slight clint frazier! dude is gonna be good, just never got a real opportunity in a crowded yankees outfield.

1 year ago
Reply to  ahawn

Clint Frazier would have been for the Yankees if he hadn’t been concussed for much of his time there. I suspect that if he isn’t concussed he’ll be a valuable player for the Cubs, but not optimistic there.

1 year ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Marcus Stroman will not meet the euphoric expectations of Cub nation. Just my opinion. Hitting in Wrigley vs Queens is much different. But have to agree on the blending of the prime of Suzuki with the rest of the Cub system.

I’ll be interested to see how the numbers compare for Bryant and Suzuki at year’s end in relation to their contracts.

1 year ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Are we really worried whether he’ll outperform the deal? He’ll be better than the contract. Don’t bury that in the grand scheme of the sport this isn’t alot of money,
particularly since FA looks ugly af moving forward. FA is going to be a gd nightmare for all but the most obvious players, and there’s fewer and fewer of those as teams and their legions tighten up their always in progress algorithms…