If the tweet from Joel Sherman of the New York Post and MLB.com is correct, the Reds have signed free agent Japanese outfielder Shogo Akiyama to a three year contract.
[Before we go further, it’s worth pointing out that Sherman and others (like Jon Morosi) haven’t cited independent sources for the deal being final. They refer back to Jon Heyman’s reporting. Heyman’s strongest wording on the deal has been:
Bidding for Shogo Akiyama has reached 20M plus for 3 years. Reds appear in front and working hard.
— Jon Heyman (@JonHeyman) December 30, 2019
Heyman may just be going with the single report in the Japanese press, with no additional sourcing. The Reds beat writers, who surely have been in touch with their sources in the front office, are also saying the deal isn’t finished. The team won’t confirm the deal until the physical takes place. That hasn’t happened yet with Akiyama. Early rumors on free agents usually come from player representatives. That said, I believe this is just the standard two-step. I’ll be surprised if the deal doesn’t happen. But we’ll have to wait and see.]
The Cubs, Diamondbacks, Rays and Padres were other teams linked to Akiyama. Akiyama’s agent is Casey Close, who played with Barry Larkin and Chris Sabo at the University of Michigan.
Shogo Akiyama will turn 32 on April 16. Sources seem to agree that he’s 6’0″ and weighs about 180 lbs. Akiyama bats left handed but throws with his right hand. He has played in the Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) league since he was drafted out of Hachinohe Gakuin University in 2010.
The NPB is considered the highest quality baseball in Japan. It is divided into two six-team leagues, the Pacific and Central. Both were founded in 1950. The NPB season runs roughly the same months as MLB, with a 144-game regular season. They play one postseason round, a seven-game series called the Japan Series, played between the winners of each league.
Akiyama has played for one team, the Saitama Seibu Lions. The Lions have won the Pacific League championship the past two seasons. Saitama is 18 miles north of Tokyo. Akiyama wore #55 for the Lions, a number currently assigned to Reds pitcher Robert Stephenson.
Akiyama had been chosen to play for the Japanese national team. But on October 31, he broke his right foot’s second-smallest toe when he was hit by a pitch in an exhibition game against Canada. He subsequently canceled his participation. The severity of the injury is unknown. Presumably the Reds checked out the situation carefully since a decent chunk of Akiyama’s value relies on his 70-grade speed. Prior to the toe injury, Akiyama had been highly durable. Akiyama hasn’t missed an NPB game in the past five years.
Akiyama had been a good, but not great player in the NPB through the 2014 season. In 2015, he broke the league record for hits with 216. The previous mark of 214 had been held by former Cub Matt Murton who did it in 2010 for the Hanshin Tigers. In 2015, Akiyama batted .359 (.395 BABIP!) and walked 8.8% of his plate appearances. That added up to a on-base percentage of .419. He also hit 36 doubles and 14 home runs. Akiyama stole 17 bases.
Jim Allen, former baseball columnist for the Daily Yomiuri and currently writer at the site Baseball in Japan recently profiled Akiyama:
“The last three seasons, Akiyama has been pulling the ball slightly more, hitting the ball in the air significantly more, resulting in a few more pop ups and swinging strikes but also producing three straight 20-plus home run seasons.”
Akiyama followed his breakthrough 2015 with four other terrific seasons. While he never matched his .359 batting average, he also never hit below .296. Over his five most recent seasons, he’s hit .320 with a 10.8% walk-rate and 14.3% strikeout rate. His .322 batting average led the NPB in 2017. Regarding power, Akiyama hit 94 homers the past five seasons, 69 in the past three. His isolated power the past three years (.198) is comparable to Jesse Winker or Phillip Ervin’s 2019 seasons.
But there’s the catch, that word “comparable.” How does the NPB compare to MLB?
Eno Sarris of The Athletic wrote about the NPB for FanGraphs a couple years ago and compared it to the highest minor league level of MLB.
“The talent level in Japan is a little different, so outcome numbers should be translated. But when it comes to how the game is played — how often batters swing, reach, hit to the opposite field, or hit ground balls — there are fewer differences than you might expect.”
Scouts have said it compares to an imaginary AAAA-League, one with better players than AAA but not as good as MLB. Keep in mind that Akiyama will be 32, not a young player coming out of AAA still improving.
Earlier in his career, Shogo Akiyama was one of the best defensive centerfielders in the NPB. He had double-plus speed and was known for good jumps and routes, and a decent and accurate arm. But Akiyama is almost 32 and his defensive skills are declining as you would expect. Jim Allen says this: “Once a terrific defensive center fielder with an above-average arm and very good range, Akiyama’s defensive results as tracked by Delta Graphs and Win Shares show a steady decline.”
In Japan Shogo Akiyama has demonstrated excellent contact skills, the ability to take a walk and good power. He’s adjusted his swing to emphasize higher launch angle and that’s produced a three-year surge in home runs. Then you have to apply the NPB-to-MLB factor. He hasn’t faced MLB pitching, although there’s quite a variance in that category. Will he hit 20 home runs? Doubtful. But 129 players did in MLB (that’s more than 4 per team).
Akiyama has been spectacular with the glove. But again, given his age, you can’t expect that to continue. His broken toe is a wild card.
Overall, since 2015 Akiyama has been regarded as one of the best position players in the NPB. He’s been an All-Star selection every year and was chosen to be on the national team. Eno Sarris cites a couple people who know both leagues who throw out the names of Adam Eaton (just turned 31) and Nick Markakis (36) as comparisons for Akiyama.
Expect Shogo Akiyama to be an average major league hitter and fielder, at least for now. Better than the average 32-year-old. There’s a chance on both sides of the ball he might be a bit better than average.
Implications for the Reds
Organizational Depth The Reds have told beat writers they see Akiyama playing across the OF, not just in CF. The team already has a slew of OF candidates, both returning and new acquisitions. Akiyama will be better than several of them, maybe even most. Akiyama gives the club an experienced, legit center fielder in case something happens to Nick Senzel. I’d rather have him than the garden variety MLB players in the free agent pool for CF. But I can’t see this being the end of the story.
Payroll Again, we don’t know what budget ownership has set for the front office. Our best guess was the Reds had about $40 million to spend on new acquisitions. With Freddie Galvis ($5.5m), Mike Moustakas ($12m), Wade Miley ($6m) they’ve already spent more than half of that. With Akiyama, we don’t know the final contract figure. Say it’s $22 million with a bit of front-loading like the Reds did with the Moustakas and Miley deals. If the payout to Akiyama is say $6m-$8m-$8m, they’d have about $10 million left to spend. They haven’t thrown darts at any veteran bullpen arms and you know that’s coming as sure as the Findlay Market parade.
No More Outfielders With the Reds outfield roster jammed, and no money left for big-ticket free agent spending, it’s hard to see them still actively pursuing Marcell Ozuna or Nick Castellanos. You would think the club is finished adding players here.
Seriously, They Can’t Be Done Getting Hitting The Reds have had an active offseason. The Moustakas contract remains one of the half-dozen most expensive across MLB. But adding Moustakas and Akiyama just isn’t enough new firepower for the offense. It would be both surprising and disappointing if the Akiyama deal signaled the end of the front office campaign to add hitting.
What Makes Most Sense When the Akiyama rumors started intensifying a few days ago, I was convinced a $10 million/2-year deal was a good move. Akiyama would be the second centerfielder and play across the OF, possibly with a few extra platoon-related AB in RF. But when Akiyama’s price shot past $15 million and then $20+ million, it sure now feels like the Reds are no longer getting a guy to just throw into the OF mix. They’re buying a starting outfielder, someone who will get a lot of playing time one way or another.
Bringing in an established centerfielder makes trading Nick Senzel easier. Full stop. Try this on: Maybe the Reds have bailed for good on Ozuna and Castellanos because those players are getting too expensive. There was a report a few days ago that Ozuna’s market might be up to $100 million. Maybe the front office has shifted its attention to a trade for an impact SS. That category includes Francisco Lindor, Corey Seager, Trevor Story and Carlos Correa. That deal would have to wait until they had locked up a replacement CF, which now they have, if the reports prove out.
A move like that would qualify as big and surprising.