Spring Training Notebook: Suzuki’s first homer and thoughts on the Cubs outfield situation
MESA, Ariz. — Seiya Suzuki announced his arrival in thrilling fashion Wednesday afternoon at Sloan Park.
The Japanese outfielder smacked his first hit in a Cubs uniform — a 2-run home run to left-center in the 4th inning:
See ya. pic.twitter.com/Awe83RuR58— Marquee Sports Network (@WatchMarquee) March 30, 2022
Suzuki was 0-for-8 this spring with a walk and a hit-by-pitch prior to the homer.
It came on Suzuki’s first back-to-back of camp as he started both Tuesday and Wednesday’s game. The Cubs are off Thursday and he is expected to play in one of the team’s split squad games on Friday.
On Wednesday, he made some in-game adjustments that led to the home run against Mariners southpaw Marco Gonzales.
“The first 2 at-bats, my timing was off so I went into my 3rd at-bat trying to adjust my timing,” Suzuki said through his interpreter, Toy Matsushita. “When I swung at the changeup, the first pitch, I felt that my timing wasn’t good enough so I tried to get a better swing on the next pitch and obviously it went over the wall, so it went pretty well.”
To get his timing down, Suzuki opted for a toe-tap instead of a leg kick in his 3rd trip to the plate.
Here’s his leg kick in the 1st inning:
And his 2nd trip up, in the 3rd inning:
And then the toe-tap that resulted in the home run:
“The only time I was nervous was the first at-bat in my first game,” Suzuki said. “Other than that, I’ve just been trying to make adjustments, just trying to learn from every at-bat and obviously it went well today.”
The fact that it came in front of a packed house at Sloan Park was icing on the cake for Suzuki.
“It felt really good to hit it in front of my own fans,” he said. “They were cheering me on and felt amazing and when I got back to the dugout, my coaches and teammates welcomed me and they were very, very happy as well. It just felt really good.”
It is obviously safe to write Suzuki’s name in pen in the Cubs lineup — Opening Day or otherwise. The 27-year-old is a big part of the team’s present and future.
Beyond that, it’s a bit unclear how the Cubs’ outfield situation will play out.
“It’s still a little muddy,” David Ross said. “The outfield is still taking shape. How guys continue to get their legs under them, have the at-bats. Some of this roster stuff sometimes comes down to options and who has what left from that standpoint.”
To make room for Suzuki in right field, veteran Jason Heyward has moved to center. The Cubs could form a platoon with Heyward facing right-handed pitchers and Michael Hermosillo getting the start against lefties and playing center.
In left field, Ian Happ has been progressing well since his offseason elbow surgery and has been able to play the field a few times in Cactus League games. The Cubs have been taking a big picture approach to the entire spring and the beginning of the season, so Happ will likely play a decent amount of DH in the early going to protect that elbow.
Rafael Ortega represents another left-handed bat and posted a .321 average and .900 OPS against righties last season. Clint Frazier has also had a strong spring and could factor into the mix as a right-handed option in left field, at DH and off the bench.
With Andrelton Simmons’ shoulder injury, the Cubs could opt to keep all six outfielders on the Opening Day roster and form a rotation with the DH spot. And it would also allow Ross to mix-and-match with platoons later in games, though it would leave the team short on infield options.
Frazier still has a minor league option remaining but Ortega and Hermosillo do not.
As Suzuki has gotten acclimated to life in Major League Baseball over his two-and-a-half weeks with the Cubs, Heyward has been a steadying presence in the outfield.
“He’s like my brother,” Suzuki said. “I don’t know the English language that well but he makes it really easy for me in terms of communication. I really appreciate it.”
The 32-year-old Heyward is the longest tenured position player on the team and has been a respected voice in the clubhouse since he signed with the Cubs before the 2016 season.
As the Cubs roster has undergone sweeping changes over the last half-year, Heyward has stepped up even more as a leader.
That includes switching positions to help the team. He is a 5-time Gold Glover in right field and has not played center since 2019, when he notched 84 games at the position.
“J-Hey’s great,” Ross said. “He’s having conversations — I see him and Seiya talking in the OF a lot. Him and Happer have a really good rapport. … J-Hey’s a real pro when it comes to that stuff. He has the right conversations, talks through how he wants to do that stuff.
“I’ve seen him taking extra reps in the outfield during batting practice, he’s working on his speed work out here at the end of the day. He’s a real professional and has taken to that change really well and really easily so far.”
Drew Smyly made his 2nd Cactus League appearance Wednesday, tossing 45 pitches in 2.2 innings against the Mariners. He has worked on short rest twice so far this spring as he pushes to build up his workload for the regular season.
“[I feel] really good,” Smyly said. “Both games, I feel like I felt better the following innings than I did the 1st inning so that’s a good sign. Arm and body feel really good right now so just still trying to build up.
“Today it felt like I could’ve easily kept throwing or gone back out for the 4th. But that wouldn’t be smart.”
The veteran southpaw is slated to make another spring start next week on regular rest and aims to increase to 60 pitches and innings. That should leave him available for 75-80 pitches by the time his turn in the rotation comes around in the first week of the regular season.