Inbox: Should Cubs target Akiyama for CF?

Beat reporter Jordan Bastian answers questions from fans

November 15th, 2019

In the last Inbox, you addressed center field and some of the internal scenarios. What about Shogo Akiyama? Signing him would allow the Cubs to keep in right field. Thoughts?
--Craig S., Chicago

There are multiple reports -- one via Patrick Mooney of The Athletic and another from Gordon Wittenmyer of the Sun-Times -- indicating that the Cubs indeed have Akiyama on their offseason radar. When asked about the international market during the GM Meetings earlier this week, Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein told reporters, "You factor in all the available avenues."

Epstein was asked a bit more about center field as an area in need of attention, though. Specifically, he was asked if the Cubs preferred to address center in order to -- as you suggested -- keep Heyward in right. Heyward willingly moved to center in the second half to accommodate the arrival of , but Chicago's outfield alignment is best with Heyward in right.

"[Center field] is certainly an area where we're looking to improve our performance," Epstein told reporters, "whether it's from the players existing on the roster or from outside. And there is a little bit of a corresponding impact, especially defensively. Who you have playing center affects the other two outfielders a little bit, and it affects your pitching staff and everything else.

"We're also looking to reshape our offense a little bit, so who will play center field will have an impact on that. Certainly, it's an area of need and we're aware of it. I also think there's some players on the roster as it stands who, with some adjustments, can perform better and help be part of the solution. We'll see."

Some background on Akiyama:

• The outfielder has spent nine seasons with the Seibu Lions in Nippon Professional Baseball, hitting .301/.376/.454 in his career. Akiyama set NPB's single-season hits record with 216 in '15. Over the past five seasons ('15-19), he's posted a .399 on-base percentage.

• In October, there were reports that the Cubs, D-backs, Mariners and Padres were scouting Akiyama. So far this offseason, the Cubs, D-backs and Blue Jays have been linked to the unrestricted free agent, who is not subject to the posting process.

• Akiyama, who will turn 32 in April, sustained a fractured bone in his right foot on Oct. 31. With an entire offseason to recover, he is seeking a Major League opportunity. But Akiyama could still opt to stay in Japan on a new contract if the right fit doesn't present itself.

Two Major League evaluators -- one from a rival National League team and another from the American League -- felt Akiyama was more of a fourth outfielder than an everyday option. He was viewed as an average to slightly below-average defender at this point, but with good hand-eye skills and decent speed offensively. One called it "risky" to bank on him being a slam dunk, everyday center fielder.

The Cubs have a pair of in-house, affordable options for center in and who could "perform better and help be part of the solution," as Epstein noted. Depending on how the Cubs view Akiyama, one scenario could be using him as part of a center-field rotation. Heyward and his contract are not going anywhere, and keeping him in right makes the most sense for the defense.

Do you think the Cubs and can work out an extension?
--Greg K., Lake Villa, Ill.

At the GM Meetings this week, Scott Boras, Bryant's agent, said that they are open to talking about an extension with the Cubs, as long as it's fair value. I'd say looking at Nolan Arenado's recent extension with the Rockies (seven years, $260 million) is a "fair" reference point. Arenado, who is a superior defender, averaged 5.5 bWAR (via Baseball Reference) in his six years prior to the extension. He turned 28 in April. Bryant, who will be 28 in January, has averaged 5.0 bWAR in his five seasons with the Cubs.

I don't think an extension with Bryant is likely this winter, but I'm also not convinced he will be traded, either. The Cubs are trying to balance contending in the present with sustaining this run of success beyond '21 (when a considerable part of the core group can enter free agency), and keeping Bryant for '20 makes the most sense. That's a lot of production to replace, barring a trade offer that blows the Cubs' front office over.

At this point, perhaps the more realistic extension targets would be or . According to the Sun-Times, the Cubs are already in the early stages of discussing a potential extension with Báez this offseason.

rose to the occasion more often than not last year no matter the role. Assuming the Cubs look elsewhere for an additional rotation piece, do you think Chatwood will be given more of an opportunity in high-leverage relief situations in 2020?
--@JoeJ30541858 via Twitter

I definitely agree that Chatwood was kind of a "wild card" arm in the Cubs' bullpen last year, filling a number of roles admirably. If the Cubs are able to add to their rotation -- via trade or the second-tier of free-agent arms -- I could certainly see Chatwood being trusted more as a leverage weapon. There are so many holes to fill and question marks in the bullpen as it stands right now. Chatwood may prefer to start, but he might be more useful in addressing the relief corps.

I'm trying to understand how the Cubs' payroll is still nearly maxed out even with the elimination of contracts like , , , , , , etc.
--@Jason23516600 via Twitter

The Cubs haven't said what their payroll ceiling will be for 2020, but we can project the payroll to already be in the neighborhood of $200 million. That projection includes guaranteed contracts, potential arbitration salaries and pre-arbitration contracts, plus other costs (such as buyouts). Looking just at the arbitration class, there is a potential of around $20 million in increased salaries over the players' 2019 contracts. There are also other players getting raises via their guaranteed deals.

The first competitive balance threshold will be $208 million for 2020. The Cubs have not said whether they plan on going over that figure -- doing so triggers paying a competitive balance tax on the overage -- as they did in '19. But if Chicago is going to make any major financial additions, some creativity (i.e. trades) will probably be necessary.

Do you see the Cubs starting with 13 pitchers and 13 hitters or 14 pitchers and 12 hitters under the new 26-man roster rules in 2020?
--Aaron S., Des Moines, Iowa

The rule proposals that were announced during Spring Training last season noted that there would be a cap of 13 pitchers when the roster is at 26 players. Expect teams to have much more clarity on the rule changes come spring next year. No matter how you slice it, the competitions for that final roster spot will be intriguing all around baseball in '20.