Blue Jays could potentially target Japanese hitters Tsutsugo, Akiyama

All Japan's Shogo Akiyama hits an inside-the-park home run off MLB All-Star pitcher Collin McHugh during their All-Stars Series in 2018. (Kyodo News/AP)

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Moments after the first media availability of the 2019 GM Meetings officially began, Ross Atkins found himself fielding questions about some potential fits for the Toronto Blue Jays.

The questions revolved not around Zack Wheeler and Jake Odorizzi, but Yoshitomo Tsutsugo and Shogo Akiyama, two Japanese players now on the radar of MLB teams. Are the Blue Jays interested? Yes, Atkins told a gathering of Japanese media Tuesday afternoon.

Led by pro scouting director Ryan Mittleman and assistant GM Andrew Tinnish, the Blue Jays have spent ‘a lot of time’ on Tsutsugo and Akiyama. And that work will likely continue in the coming weeks.

“We’ll continue to engage with their representatives and understand if they’re potential fits,” Atkins said.

While the Blue Jays are prioritizing pitching, they would also like to add a versatile first baseman and improve their centre field defence this winter. Under those circumstances, it would be reckless not to consider Tsutsugo and Akiyama, two left-handed hitters with proven track records of success in Japan.

Tsutsugo, who turns 28 later this month, has a lifetime .284/.382/.525 batting line with an average of 34 home runs per 162 games played in Japan. In 2019, he hit 29 home runs with an .899 OPS for the Yokohama Bay Stars while appearing in 131 games.

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At the same time, he may already be past his defensive prime. As a fielder, he’s best suited to first base or a corner outfield position according to some observers.

“He’s an impressive hitter,” Atkins said. “A lot of fun to watch. An exciting talent. Obviously he’s lit up his country. We love the (fan) chant. We love watching the song when he comes up to hit. He’s an exciting hitter and versatile. An interesting player, for sure.”

While Tsutsugo will be posted by the Bay Stars, Akiyama is simply a free agent. The 31-year-old centre fielder has been remarkably consistent in recent years, appearing in exactly 143 games for the Seibu Lions in five consecutive seasons. Adding to his appeal, he has never hit below .296 or posted an OBP below .385 during that time. In recent years he has added more power, too, with three consecutive 20-homer seasons.

“Interesting as well,” Atkins said. “These guys could be very good major-league pieces and fits.”

Or… they could not be. As one rival GM noted Tuesday, there’s no guarantee that success in Japan translates to MLB. For example, Nori Aoki posted an .856 OPS in Japan and a .738 OPS in the majors. Kosuke Fukudome posted an .879 OPS in Japan and a .754 OPS in the majors. Even Hideki Matsui saw his OPS decline from .996 in Japan to .822.

With that history in mind, the Blue Jays can’t possibly expect Tsutsugo or Akiyama to replicate their numbers against big-league pitchers. At the same time, MLB executives agree that these players can help big-league teams in 2020.

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At first glance, Akiyama might seem to be a better fit than Tsutsugo given that the Blue Jays have plenty of corner bats already. But teams are already asking Atkins about Toronto’s outfielders, so the possibility of a trade exists. Plus, some of the Blue Jays’ existing players could move around the diamond if needed.

“We also have some versatility on our team,” Atkins said. “Guys could potentially play different positions, whether that’s Cavan Biggio or Brandon Drury or Billy McKinney. Teoscar Hernandez or Randal Grichuk playing centre. Lourdes Gurriel potentially playing some infield, which is still something we’re discussing.”

Of course the Blue Jays are discussing a lot of possibilities at this point in the off-season. Like every other front office in baseball, they’re inclined to keep their options open as long as possible. From a business standpoint, it makes all kinds of sense.

Just as it makes sense to continue dialogue with Tsutsugo and Akiyama after a season in which 22 teams outscored the Blue Jays.

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