This year’s free agent market provided few options for teams seeking center fielders. Only 36-year-old Brett Gardner made our Top 50 Free Agents list, and he’s played a significant number of innings in the corners. The non-tendering of Kevin Pillar added another option, but he’s a slightly below-average performer and forecasts to be the same this season. None of the other major league free agents projects for even a win above replacement next season. All of that combined to make Shogo Akiyama potentially the best — and possibly the only — full-time starting center fielder available for a team hoping to contend. The Reds have been very clear about their wish to contend in 2020 and with multiple question marks in their outfield, Akiyama and Cincinnati have reportedly agreed on a three-year deal. The cost isn’t yet known, but reports have thrown out figures in the $15 million to $20 million range.
Akiyama comes to the Reds without a posting fee due to his tenure in Japan. He will be 32 years old in April, though he’s been incredibly durable the last five years, playing in the maximum 143 games each year and averaging 674 plate appearances per season during that time. He’s put up at least 20 homers in each of the last three seasons, though his isolated slugging percentage dropped by about 50 points in 2019 compared to the 2017 and 2018 seasons. Scouting reports are mixed on Akiyama’s present skillset. At Sports Info Solutions, Wil Hoefer wrote the following as part of his scouting report:
The good news on that front is that Akiyama has starting outfielder tools right now. His quick hands and good bat speed give him above-average game power and hit tools, albeit with some concerns about rigidity in his wrists and his occasional issues falling out of the batter’s box on contact. He’s an above-average runner in his early 30s, and while he does show good range and jumps in center, advanced defensive metrics–which should be taken with a grain of salt since they are a fairly new phenomenon in evaluating NPB players–are lukewarm at best and show a decline in Runs Saved from his earlier years in center field.
Over at Baseball Prospectus, Kazuto Yamazaki was a bit more bullish on Akiyama’s defensive abilities, but not quite as optimistic about his offense, particularly the power:
His speed and glove should transfer well to stateside ball, making him a plus defender at a premium position. The bat is likely to play average, with an off chance to be above-average if he adjusts well to the offensive climate in the major leagues. It is safe to say Akiyama becomes an above-average center field regular upon his anticipated arrival to The Show in 2020, with a glove-first second division regular downside. Although, given his age, he may have only a few good seasons left.
If we think the bat is likely to play average with good on-base skills, not that many strikeouts, maybe decent power, good baserunning, and average to above-average defense in center field, that sounds a lot like what Jason Heyward and Brett Gardner have provided over the last few years. That’s also what Akiyama’s projections look like. Here are his ZiPS projections, courtesy of Dan Szymborski:
Akiyama represents a depth play with some upside for the Reds for roughly the same guarantee the Brewers just gave to Avisaíl García. Prior to this signing, the Reds were slated to have Jesse Winker, Nick Senzel, and Aristides Aquino as their three starting outfielders. That’s an intriguing group, but Winker hasn’t been able to stay on the field, while Senzel has had injury issues of his own and Aquino had an awful September after a great August. The team’s current depth includes Phillip Ervin, Rule 5 pick Mark Payton, and Travis Jankowski. Signing Akiyama gives the team a solid starter, but also added insurance. If we assume the outfield is going to receive a combined 2100 plate appearances, even if Akiyama, Aquino, Senzel, and Winker all stay healthy, they can each get somewhere in the neighborhood of 120 starts and 500 plate appearances. In the more likely scenario where one or more players is injured or not producing, the team is less likely to give considerable playing time to players who would constitute a significant dropoff at the plate and in the field.
If all four outfielders stay healthy, the team could also try Senzel out at shortstop, a possibility that was explored before the 2018 season. Even if he’s below average at short, his bat would likely be a big improvement over Freddy Galvis’. After bringing on Mike Moustakas and Wade Miley, Akiyama is another signing in the same vein. He doesn’t blow anyone away, but two more wins is two more wins. The deadline deal for Trevor Bauer was the team’s major acquisition for 2020, and the Reds look to be in the same range of wins as National League Central contenders like the Brewers and Cardinals.
And if we wanted to get speculative, there’s always the Francisco Lindor scenario. Akiyama and Senzel appear to overlap a bit positionally, and if the Reds were willing to take a few chances with a lack of depth in the outfield, Senzel is the type of player who might headline a Lindor deal. While Senzel didn’t have the best debut in 2019, he entered the season as the game’s seventh-best prospect. That’s roughly the same position Dodgers’ prospect Gavin Lux is in right now. If the Reds were able to center a Lindor trade offer around Senzel, it might serve to close their window for contention earlier than they might want. But to close a window, you have to open it in the first place and adding Lindor would provide the Reds with the clearest opportunity to contend since they last made the playoffs in 2013. With the rest of the division slowing down or moving backward, the Reds have given themselves hope, and there’s still the possibility for a franchise-altering move that pushes them to the top of the division.
Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.