Yesterday I wrote about the dire need for the Cubs to fill out their starting rotation, as they currently have just two guaranteed starters — Kyle Hendricks and Yu Darvish — for the 2021 rotation. The rotation is obviously a top priority this winter, and so too is the outfield, with just two outfielders on the entirety of the 40-man roster: Jason Heyward and Ian Happ. Competent outfielders, like starting pitchers, are clearly a need for the Northsiders.
Without any minor leaguers ready to make the jump to the bigs yet (even if we’re excited about you, Brennen Davis) outfield depth will certainly be a priority in Jed Hoyer’s bargain bin shopping. A name like David Dahl would’ve been ideal for the Cubs, until he inked a one year, $3 million deal with the Rangers. That Texas swooped in and signed a talented-but-struggling 26 year old on the cheap was a bit of a surprise, and while it’s disappointing the Cubs missed out on such a talent, it does suggest they could find some quality talent without disrupting the Ricketts’ directive to cut payroll.
Of the available names on the market, Haruki Nishikawa stands out as a terrific fit at Wrigley.
Nishikawa Does More than Fill the Center Field Role
At age 28, Nishikawa has established himself in nine seasons in the NPB as a speedy, talented defender, with terrific on-base skills. What he lacks in power numbers (career .394 slugging percentage in Japan) he makes up for with his ability to draw walks, make contact, and create runs. All told, his career offensive line in Japan has the makings of a classic leadoff hitter:
This is an offensive profile the Cubs lack from an everyday player. A well above-average on-base percentage and the chance to steal 20+ bases per year while limiting strikeouts is certainly enticing, and would compliment the already-existing talent. It’s all the more attractive when you consider Nishikawa has three Gold Glove Awards to his name.
What’s more, his presence would shift Ian Happ to left field — a position he is better suited for — while strengthening the whole of the Cubs outfield defense. For what it’s worth, Brett Taylor points out that Happ has a career -5 DRS and 0.2 UZR/150 in CF, and 2 DRS and 10.6 UZR in LF (in less than half the innings played).
The lefty swinging Nishikawa does present a lefty-heavy problem in the outfield, but keep in mind that 1) this is a similar juxtaposition as last season with Heyward in right, Happ in center, and Kyle Schwarber in left, 2) Happ’s switch-hitting capability mitigates the problem some, and 3) signing a veteran, right-handed CF in a reserve role (such as bringing back Cameron Maybin) would afford a variety of platoon opportunities and lineup flexibility.
Patrick Mooney recently quoted Hoyer with regard to Happ’s position next season, promoting the idea that a move to left is possible: “We’re totally comfortable with Ian playing center. But obviously if an acquisition brought us a pure, natural center fielder, Ian would be well above average defensively in left and we could certainly do that. We are open to it.”
Nishikawa is certainly a ‘pure, natural center fielder’ — even if he began his NPB career as an infielder. He also has a pretty, compact swing.
What can be Expected from Nishikawa Stateside?
Last offseason, I wrote (for On Tap Sports Net) that the Cubs should pursue Shogo Akiyama. That argument was based on numerous factors: a (relatively) cheap price tag, his true free agent status as opposed to being posted by a club, along with the track record of being a contact-hitter/on-base machine with good speed and above average defense.
Akiyama’s first year with Cincy was far from great, as he posted a .245/.357/.297 slash with no home runs, seven steals, and a wRC+ of 85, yielding a 0.5 fWAR. It should be noted that, despite the underwhelming slash, his walk rate (13.7 percent) was terrific and his strikeout rate (18.6 percent) was well above league average.
The comp is an obvious one to make. Both players are left-handed contact hitters with extensive careers in the world’s second-best league. That Akiyama struggled in 2020 could be a bit of a red flag, given his career numbers in the NPB are better than Nishikawa’s, but there’s another perspective to consider.
Akiyama’s first season in Cincy came amidst the awkward, pandemic-influenced 60-game season. With so many entrenched MLB superstars registering disappointing campaigns, it’s hard to conclude too much about Shogo’s performance in 2020.
It’s also understandable that players from the NPB and KBO take some time to adjust to MLB velocity, American lifestyle/culture, etc. All of that said, Akiyama was 31 in 2020 (Nishikawa’s ’21 campaign will be played at age-29), and despite his struggles he still posted a .357 OBP.
With this perspective in mind, let’s take a look at how scouts view Nishikawa’s transition to the States. Ted Baarda at Sports Info Solutions scouts Nishikawa thusly:
Haruki Nishikawa has the prototypical leadoff hitter skill set, as a center fielder with patience and speed. At the plate the lefthanded Nishikawa holds the bat pointing straight up in the air, and attacks his pitch with a flat, line-drive swing. His hands are quick to the ball, allowing him to turn on pitches inside and he lacks the big leg kick that is common in today’s game, opting instead for a small toe-tap. He tries to spray liners around the field and keep the infield honest with bunt fakes and attempts, and he rarely chases pitches out of the zone. He lacks any power at the plate with his ISO below .100 in each of the last two seasons.Ted Baarda, Sports Info Solutions
The lack of power is a bit of a concern, but if Nishikawa, like Akiyama, can offer up a well above-average OBP even with offensive depreciation in the move to MLB, he would provide the Cubs a unique approach compared to their power-heavy, strikeout-prone lineup.
That Baarda limits Nishikawa’s upside to that of a fourth outfielder is perhaps a disincentive to signing him. But given the Cubs current need for outfielders and the potential of the soon-to-be 29 year-old, Nishikawa just might be worth the risk.
Is Nishikawa Affordable and a Good Fit for Cubs?
The high-end result would be that Nishikawa settles in as the everyday center fielder, affording Happ the benefit of settling in left field while serving as depth in center. A stable presence in center also allows Happ the opportunity to play second, third, or first as needed, showing off his versatility. Happ’s 2020 breakout betrayed the fact that he’s a true utility weapon defensively; removing the need to play him in center everyday will allow that valuable skill to once again shine.
After the fan-less 60 game season, and considering Nishikawa’s fanfare is lesser than that of fellow NPB-alum Akiyama, the latter’s three year, $21 million pact is likely unattainable. This obviously benefits the Cubs, who recently non-tendered Schwarber and his $7-$9 million arbitration figure.
It stands to reason the Cubs could offer a multi-year deal, and a three year contract worth $14 million seems reasonable. If Nishikawa breaks out as an everyday player the Cubs have a steal; should he prove a capable platoon/fourth outfielder piece, the Cubs would have netted a valuable contributor at less than $5 million annually. (They would also owe Nippon a 20 percent posting fee, although that number would not affect the Luxury Tax.)
There are plenty of free agent outfielders available this winter, and like Nishikawa, they all offer their own upside cocktail — garnished with caveats. The center field class is quite thin, however, and for the Cubs to maximize Happ’s talents, finding an every day presence in center would strengthen the club immensely.
Haruki Nishikawa is exactly the type of low-risk signing the Cubs should take.
Featured Photo: Darren Yamashita, USA TODAY Sports
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