Spring Training Notebooks

Spring Training Notebook: Seiya Suzuki ready to take next step offensively for Cubs

2 months agoAndy Martinez

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GLENDALE, Ariz. — For all the Cubs’ touting of internal improvements to take another step in 2024, there may be no better candidate than Seiya Suzuki.

His final numbers were solid — .285 average, .842 OPS, 20 home runs, 74 RBI and a 124 OPS+ — but his final two months were incredible. In 198 plate appearances, Suzuki hit .356 with 11 home runs, 37 RBI and a whopping 1.086 OPS. It was the kind of performance that can carry an offense.

“I think a big part of it is just using his eye and using his plate discipline to his advantage,” hitting coach Dustin Kelly said. “That just because he has such a good eye, he would take some pitches that were a little bit more borderline but knowing that he could get to some pitches that were in the heart of the zone earlier in the count just really helped open up the aggressiveness.

“What it ended up doing is it just put a little more fear into the pitchers of knowing that, ‘Hey he’s gonna be swinging earlier than what he has been in the past.’”

Part of what makes the Cubs a bit optimistic about Suzuki’s progression in 2024 stems from continuity and familiarity. Suzuki is entering his third year in the league and has a better sense of the pitchers and league structures, in addition to off-field adjustments like culture, that can help him thrive.

The biggest sense of comfort, though, may come from Kelly. When Craig Counsell was named manager, there were questions as to whether the coaching staff would remain in place. Kelly had worked with Suzuki late last season to hone in on a batting cage routine that helped him find his groove.

“In terms of my routine, it was just about creating a plan beforehand and making sure I complete those tasks every day,” Suzuki said through translator Toy Matsushita. “Prior, I was more of I get to the field and I kind of decide at that point what I’m gonna do. But when things were going well for me it was just creating a plan beforehand and that really helped me mentally.”

With Kelly returning, that stability can help Suzuki carry over his late-season successes into 2024.

“He’s like my dad,” Suzuki said. “He just watches, and he doesn’t really say much. As a player, you really, really appreciate that. When you ask him and kinda responds in a way that you kinda wanna hear stuff.”

The Cubs aren’t done adding to their roster, as they showed Monday in signing veterans David Peralta and Dom Smith to minor-league deals, but if they can’t add Cody Bellinger or another big bat through free agency, improvements from players like Suzuki will be paramount if they hope to compete for a playoff spot.

“We need to sign some good stars for now,” Suzuki quipped. “I’m just kidding, but they expect a lot out of me and I’m gonna do my best to make sure I meet those expectations. I feel like I’m ready for this season. I’ve worked really hard during the offseason, so I’m ready to go.”

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As workouts kicked off at Sloan Park, a group of pitchers took part in a new-look drill — The “Vandy bunt drill.”

They took to the agility field and created a mini diamond, with a pitcher at home, first base, second base, shortstop, third base and another in the middle. The player in the middle mimicked a pitcher and a coach, either bench coach Ryan Flaherty or Triple-A manager Marty Pevey, would roll a ball out to simulate a bunt.

The ball wasn’t always rolled out to the pitcher like in traditional pitcher fielding practice, but instead to each position, where a pitcher would field it and throw it to whatever base corresponded to the situation.

“It’s more of just a drill to teach pitchers what everybody else’s responsibilities are,” Counsell said.

Is it a Vanderbilt baseball specialty?

“No, we made that up that it was the Vandy bunt drill,” Counsell said.  “That was to put pressure on [bench coach and Vanderbilt alum] Ryan Flaherty so that if it went bad, he took the blame.”

“That said, Vandy does have a long lineage of excellent bunters,” said general manager Carter Hawkins, who was seated next to Counsell at the Cactus League availability at the Glendale Civic Center. “Myself included; you could look it up.”

Only two seasons of Hawkins’ statistics were available on the Vanderbilt athletics website; he did have 1 sacrifice hit in 2006 in 14 games.

New additions

Deals for both Peralta and Smith have yet to become official, but both should be at the Cubs complex soon for physicals to finalize them, according to a source.  

The additions of both, on minor-league deals, give the Cubs some much-needed depth in the left-handed hitting department. The Cubs have just 5 left-handed hitters on their 40-man roster and one switch-hitter, Ian Happ. Peralta and Smith’s additions present the Cubs with other options not currently on the 40-man roster that could help in case of injury.

“We’re pretty right-handed,” Hawkins said. “Right-handers can hit right-handers, but typically, left-handers can get right-handers a little bit more effectively. To bring in, potentially, some left-handed bats that can help fortify our depth a little bit and help our team win, like that’s something we’ll do every day of the week.”

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