What motivates Chicago Cubs reliever Edwin Escobar? 7 seasons in Japan, family — and a big-league shot.

MESA, Ariz. — A recent morning in the Chicago Cubs’ clubhouse before team stretch found Shota Imanaga and Seiya Suzuki chatting near the pitcher’s locker.

As they spoke, left-hander Edwin Escobar stopped by and seamlessly joined the conversation in their native Japanese, at one point causing his former Yokohama Bay Stars teammate Imanaga to laugh.

“He’s Shota’s second interpreter,” manager Craig Counsell later quipped.

Escobar’s journey to the Cubs has been an untraditional path for the trilingual Venezuelan. After spending seven seasons in Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball league, Escobar, who turns 32 in April, decided the time was right to try returning to Major League Baseball.

“I felt ready to be back,” Escobar told the Tribune. “I earned a lot of experience there and more knowledge in the game.”

But more important than showing he can be a successful big-league reliever, Escobar’s family was his greatest motivation for leaving NPB, where he had an offer to return for 2024.

The lure of having his family closer was too great to ignore. Because of COVID-19 restrictions and the subsequent impact of the pandemic, Escobar did not see his children — Dominic, 13, Dhanna, 8, and Evan, 4 — from 2020-22 during the eight months each year he had to spend in Japan. Portrait tattoos of his three children on his right forearm provide a constant reminder of his motivation.

“That made my decision easier to come back,” Escobar said. “Every day I see them here it’s a blessing for me. I was looking for this moment to have my whole family with me. I wake up and see them and they get to see me pitch.”

Overseas leagues, including in NPB, often serve as a more lucrative option for journeyman players who haven’t been able to establish themselves with a major-league team. For many, it’s an option pursued in their late 20s or early 30s. Escobar, however, joined the Bay Stars shortly before turning 25 after appearing in 27 total big-league games for two organizations. His last year with a major-league organization — pitching in 25 games for the Arizona Diamondbacks — coincided with the Cubs’ 2016 World Series title season.

Escobar said his NPB experience taught him how to better handle a reliever’s workload, recalling how he would pitch five days in a row.

“It was tough, but now I’m able to come out of the ’pen almost every day so that’s huge,” Escobar said. “Not too many people can do that. I built my strength.”

During his seven seasons in Japan, Escobar posted a 3.17 ERA in 395 games, which included tallying at least 60 appearances five times. Escobar never thought his departure for Japan meant the end of big-league opportunities. He figured he would return when he was ready.

“Too many people ask me the same question, ‘Do you want to stay in Japan forever?’ I don’t know, but I feel like one day I’d be back in the United States and MLB,” Escobar said.

After the 2023 NPB season, Escobar discussed the situation with his wife. He felt ready for a new challenge though admits at one point he thought he would remain in Japan for another year.

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As a non-roster invitee, Escobar knows he will need to earn a spot on the Cubs’ opening-day roster.

“Just the fact that there was interest so early and he had success, that says a lot about him,” Counsell said of Escobar’s time in Japan. “He comes back as someone who knows what he does, this is not a young player. So, look, it’s a place that we have some competition at.”

The Cubs only have one left-handed reliever currently on the 40-man roster, Luke Little, while Drew Smyly could be used out of the bullpen should they opt to not put him in the rotation. If Counsell and the front office want another lefty reliever to open the season with the team, Escobar, Richard Lovelady and Brad Wieck are the most notable non-roster invitees in play to make the team.

“Left-handed options in the bullpen is something that we need, we’re going to use, so it’s an interesting competition,” Counsell said. “We’ve got a really good group of candidates for that spot and we’ve got some depth there throughout the season.”

For Escobar, returning to the big leagues while reuniting with his family would be a dream come true.

“After seven years, I’m enjoying every day I step into this clubhouse with great teammates,” Escobar said, “and I’m happy to continue to do what I love.”