Baseball’s free agent market is flush with talent, and there are a litany of big names who could switch teams in the coming months.
Yet when all is said and done, the best player available could turn out to be a relative unknown — at least in America.
Seiya Suzuki, a 27-year-old right fielder from Japan, will reportedly look to make the jump to Major League Baseball this offseason. The reigning Nippon Professional Baseball league MVP has emerged as the best player to come out of the country since Shohei Ohtani, and those who have followed him closely believe he could make an immediate impact in MLB upon his arrival.
“He’s a superstar player with five tools who has a really advanced approach at the plate,” said Shane Barclay, the owner and president of JapanBall.com and an expert on the Japanese baseball scene. “He’s the type of guy that impacts the game in all areas.”
Barclay, whose business covers Japanese baseball for English-speaking audiences and arranges baseball tours in the country, said Suzuki compares favorably in many ways to Mookie Betts. He said Suzuki is particularly notable for his rare combination of power and plate discipline, skills that could translate well against big league competition.
“That’s truly a unique talent that very few guys combine that with power like he does,” Barclay said. “Anthony Rendon, Juan Soto or Vladimir Guerrero Jr., those guys do that, and Suzuki obviously we can’t guarantee that he’s going to be like those guys, but there’s not really a second rung of guys with an amazing plate approach and also hit for power. If you have those skills it translates anywhere in the world.”
Suzuki is coming off a 2021 season in which he hit .319 with 38 home runs and 88 RBI while posting a 1.079 OPS. He also had 87 walks against only 86 strikeouts, marking the second time in three years he’s had more walks than strikeouts.
Beyond his prowess at the plate, Suzuki is a three-time NPB Gold Glove winner who is particularly renowned for his throwing arm.
“He’s got some highlight reels of him throwing out guys from right field,” Barclay said. “He’s got a true right fielder’s arm and he’s a good enough athlete where he’s above average in the outfield as well with the glove.”
As far as how he would handle the MLB spotlight, Suzuki has already excelled on the biggest stages available to him thus far. He has twice played in the Japan Series and has regularly starred for the Japanese National Team. He took part in the 2017 World Baseball Classic, was named Team MVP in the 2019 WBSC Premier12 Tournament and helped Japan capture the gold medal at this summer’s Tokyo Games.
“In Japan it’s a huge deal because they take a lot of pride in their national team,” Barclay said. “I think Americans can’t quite appreciate how big a deal it is but to be the best player on the national team in Japan in a major international tournament really shows that he’s capable of stepping up in the moment.”
Barclay added that personality-wise Suzuki should be a good fit in American clubhouses, saying that while he takes the game seriously and is a fierce competitor on the field, he isn’t afraid to have fun too.
“There is a pretty good video of him with Hiroki Kuroda, who is a very respected veteran in Japan, and he was going to dump a water cooler on him because he was the hero of the game,” Barclay said. “He was sneaking up because he likes to do that to guys, and as soon as he saw Kuroda’s face, ‘kind of like nah ah, you’re not getting me,’ he stopped there and froze and dumped the water cooler on himself.”
The big question now is where will Suzuki land, and as of now there isn’t much indication of where his preferred destinations might be. Historically Japanese players have tended to prefer playing on the west coast to be closer to home, but many have been willing to play for east coast clubs like the Red Sox as well.
Boston has a particularly strong history with Japanese talent, as Daisuke Matsuzaka, Hideki Okajima, Koji Uehara and most recently Hirokazu Sawamura have all made an impact in Boston.
Would the Red Sox consider signing Suzuki? The team would likely have to make some other moves as well. Boston already has a right fielder in Hunter Renfroe, who delivered close to 30 home runs and 100 RBI while leading the league in outfield assists, and he remains under team control for two years and is projected to earn around $7.5 million in arbitration this coming season.
Renfroe’s a relative bargain, but if Suzuki could be something akin to a Japanese Mookie Betts, that’s an opportunity the club will have to take seriously.
“I do think he’s an all-star type player,” Barclay said. “And I wouldn’t be surprised if he catches people off guard and becomes a superstar in the U.S. as well.”
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