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Akiyama elated to be Reds' 1st Japanese player

Left-handed-hitting outfielder 'inspired by passion' in Cincinnati's pursuit
@m_sheldon
January 8, 2020

CINCINNATI -- Shogo Akiyama donned a No. 4 Reds jersey for the first time on Wednesday, and the Japanese outfielder was introduced to his new surroundings at Great American Ball Park. While that was standard procedure for any major free-agent acquisition -- Akiyama was signed on Monday to a three-year,

CINCINNATI -- Shogo Akiyama donned a No. 4 Reds jersey for the first time on Wednesday, and the Japanese outfielder was introduced to his new surroundings at Great American Ball Park.

While that was standard procedure for any major free-agent acquisition -- Akiyama was signed on Monday to a three-year, $21 million contract -- it was clear that this was unlike any press conference Cincinnati had held before.

“It's now safe to say it's officially Sho-Time," Reds president of baseball operations Dick Williams said. “It's taken us over 150 years, but we're so excited to finally have the first player from Japan come play at the Major League level in Cincinnati, home of baseball's first professional franchise."

More than 40 reporters were on hand -- half from Japanese media organizations -- as Akiyama and his translator, Roger Kahlon, spoke alongside Williams, general manager Nick Krall and manager David Bell. It was the conclusion of a process that began in earnest during last month’s Winter Meetings, when Akiyama came to San Diego to meet personally with numerous interested clubs.

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Inside their suite, the Reds were ready with recruiting material -- written in Japanese -- that highlighted the club, its history and life in Cincinnati. Images of fans were shown at the annual Findlay Market Opening Day parade, inside the ballpark and in city life.

“Hearing his reaction to what we were saying, you could tell it meant a lot to him,” Bell said. “[And] not only for him -- you could tell he had his family on his mind. You could tell we were going to be a really good fit for him.”

Akiyama came away impressed about the presentation and the opportunity.

“The fact that there has never been a Japanese player here in Cincinnati was something that was very attractive. The presentation material was very inspiring, and it made me want to play here,” Akiyama said through Kahlon. “The Reds were actually the first team that made an offer to me. I was very inspired by their passion to how much they really wanted me. I wanted to respond to that. That’s why I chose the Reds.”

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Akiyama, who turns 32 on April 16, will earn $6 million in 2020, $7 million in ‘21 and $8 million in ‘22. He will join fellow free-agent acquisitions like second baseman Mike Moustakas and left-handed starting pitcher Wade Miley on a Reds club seeking to contend in the National League Central division in '20. Williams and Krall have spent around $100 million this offseason to make the needed upgrades.

During his nine-year career with the Seibu Lions in Nippon Professional Baseball, Akiyama was a .301 hitter, and he made all five of his Pacific League All-Star teams in each of the past five seasons. The left-handed hitter has averaged 23 homers over each of the past three seasons.

“What was sort of a given in Japan is definitely not going to be so here,” Akiyama said. “It’s definitely going to be a big adjustment, but I’m actually looking forward to taking on that challenge, and I’m looking forward to making that adjustment.”

Akiyama grew up idolizing future Hall of Famer Ichiro Suzuki, the most successful Japanese player to transition to Major League Baseball.

“He was that person above the clouds and far away that I can’t reach, but he’s somebody who continued to inspire me and someone I wanted to emulate,” Akiyama said. “I just worked hard to be as much like him. He was my inspiration.”

Akiyama has yet to meet Ichiro in person, but he did consult with another former Japanese Major Leaguer in Norichika Aoki. An outfielder, Aoki spent six seasons in the big leagues.

“He was kind enough to share about making adjustments here in the Majors,” Akiyama said. “We talked about mechanics, but we also talked about getting adjusted to living here in the U.S.”

With his wife and two sons, ages 5 and 3, Akiyama began some of that adjustment on Tuesday as he toured the city. That included dining on his first “four-way” of Cincinnati chili and spaghetti during lunch at Skyline Chili. Akiyama plans to return home to Japan later on Wednesday, and he will come back to the U.S. ahead of Spring Training.

As for his new teammates, Akiyama has yet to meet them. But he did watch third baseman Eugenio Suárez play in person during a Major League All-Star tour of Japan last winter.

“He was there and definitely left an impression on me of how good he was,” Akiyama said. “Obviously, Joey Votto has been playing for a long time, so I’ve seen him a lot.”

After the 2018 season, the Reds strengthened a near non-existent scouting operation in the Pacific Rim, and they added a scouting manager there in Rob Fidler, among others. But Williams noted that the club had had its eyes on Akiyama for years in anticipation of him becoming a free agent.

“This offseason, we identified several areas where we wanted to address and further improve our club,” Williams said. “Among those were a quality hitting approach, athletic outfield defense, team speed and adding good teammates of high character. Shogo had all of these qualities.”

Mark Sheldon has covered the Reds for MLB.com since 2006, and previously covered the Twins from 2001-05. Follow him on Twitter @m_sheldon and Facebook.