It seems increasingly likely that the Arizona Diamondbacks are in the market for a center fielder this winter. Despite the success of Ketel Marte’s move to the position last season. the signs seem to point towards him returning to his more natural spot of second-base in 2020. The team declined their option on Wilmer Flores, who had most starts at second for the D-backs this year. While Eduardo Escobar did make 31 starts there, the team has said that their priority would be to have him at third-base and Marte playing second. Which would appear to leave Arizona needing to fill a gap in center, especially with Jarrod Dyson, Marte’s primary backup there, now a free-agent.
If the team wanted to go cheap, then the primary candidate is probably already in house, in the shape of Tim Locastro. While primary a left-fielder this year, he had ten starts in center, and certainly has the wheels, both defensively and on the base-paths, to be a credible replacement for Dyson, if not Marte. But even with his franchise-record 22 hit by pitches in only 250 PA, Locastro’s OPS ended up sub-.700, an OPS+ of 84. With Locastro now at the age of 27, there’s perhaps not much more offensive upside to be found there. He may be better suited to a fourth outfielder, with the ability to play all three outfield spots, and come off the bench when the team needs a stolen-base.
The North American free-agent list is severely underwhelming. Of the eight apparent candidates, Dyson is the only one who posted even half a win by bWAR this year. Second on the list is Billy Hamilton at 0.4 bWAR and his value is even more speed-dependent that Locastro, with an OPS+ of only 50 last season. Nobody else was above replacement value, so you’d be hard pushed to make a case for them as an upgrade on Tim. But there is another free-agent available, albeit one who has never been tested against MLB pitching. He’s the owner of the Japanese single-season record for hits, Shogo Akiyama, who announced his intention to move to America in October.
I have a very personal interest in the team signing Akiyama. It would finally, in their 22nd season, give me an Arizona Diamondback player who shares my birthday. But he could also be a short- and moderate-term solution to the center field position, while the D-backs wait for the arrival of leading position player prospects, outfielders Alek Thomas and/or Kristian Robinson. Both are listed in the MLB Pipeline top hundred across all baseball, and may be the center fielders of Arizona’s future. But neither prospect is currently expected to reach the majors until 2022. Shogo could offer a possible solution to cover the gap until then, allowing Marte to return to the infield.
The left-handed hitter will turn 32 in April, so is probably not a player to whom you’d want to give a long-term contract. But a two-year deal might work nicely. He has solid hitting tools, possessing a career .301 average for the Saitama Seibu Lions in NPB, and decent pop as well, having hit 20+ home-run in each of the last three seasons. That gives him a career OPS of .829. For comparison, Nori Aoki had an OPS of .883 in his time before coming to the majors, and in his first two years here, had an OPS+ of 104 for the Brewers. Though Aoki was a little younger, being 30 when he made his MLB debut, somewhere around league average output for Akiyama is probably a reasonable estimate.
There certainly doesn’t appear to be any health issues - unlike a certain former Diamondback center fielder I could mention. Akiyama has not missed a game for the Lions since 2014, though of course, past performance is not guarantee against future mortality. His defense was once excellent, but does appear to be no longer at that level. Jim Allen wrote, “Akiyama’s defensive results as tracked by Delta Graphs and Win Shares show a steady decline. At the start of this season, he seemed to be having trouble tracking balls and some who follow the Lions agreed he had unusual trouble with a number of routine catches. That issue appears to have cleared up, however.”
The main problem from an Arizona perspective, would appear to be that interest in Akiyama’s services is likely to be solid. As noted above, there is a shortage of good center-fielders in this year’s market, and demand will potentially exceed supply. MLB Trade Rumors listed the Cubs, Mariners and Padres as teams alongside the Diamondbacks who “have at least taken a look” at Akiyama. But the Blue Jays are also actively engaged, and the Yankees also need an outfielder who can handle center, having lost Aaron Hicks to Tommy John surgery. A bidding war is potentially going to drive up the asking price, both in cost and length, and that would likely work against Arizona.
Perhaps the main thing which makes me think we aren’t serious about Akiyama, is that Hazen said, “We think he’s a good player.” Unlike some previous front-offices, this one has been extremely good at keeping their cards close to their chests. Hardly any move they have done, has been one which was expected. The team admitting they were in the market for a free-agent, would seem to go against what has been recent standard operating practice for the D-backs. Indeed, that they’re talking about moving Marte back to second, makes me think he’s perhaps already penciled in for center field. But perhaps the answer still might come from the other side of the Pacific.
For second baseman Ryosuke Kikuchi is reportedly going to be posted by his club, the Hiroshima Carp. He’s slightly younger (he will turn 30 in March), and is similarly durable as Akiyama, having played 138+ games in NPB’s shorter season, each of the past seven years. His OPS of .706 is lower than Akiyama, but his reputation is mostly built upon outstanding defense, and we know how Hazen has made this a strength of the D-backs. Although there would be the posting process to go through there, the free-agent market at second-base is considerably deeper. This would potentially mean less competition for Kikuchi’s services, and the eventual overall cost is less likely to be driven up beyond good value.
Hazen has managed to steer the Diamondbacks’ rebuild vessel away from the Shoals of Tanking, largely by doing the unexpected, and pulling off moves no-one anticipated. The trade of Greinke to the Astros, when many pundits said such a deal was near-impossible, is a good example of this. That’s why, while some fans are already anticipating Akiyama’s arrival in Arizona, I’ve a feeling Hazen will continue to zag while others zig, and a more creative solution to the CF/2B situation may be found.