Is Seiya Suzuki the All-Star Cubs need him to be in 2023?

Can Seiya Suzuki become the All-Star Cubs need him to be? originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

Japanese superstar Seiya Suzuki had 85 million really good reasons to cross an ocean last winter to continue his baseball career.

But on the day he was introduced to Cubs fans at his first media conference in March, he shared the other big one:

“I’ve always wanted to be the No. 1 player, and I feel like this is the chance for me right now.”

As Suzuki returns from paternity leave with an up-and-down rookie season almost complete, that ambition remains an open question at least.

And whether he’s the All-Star right fielder the Cubs believe they paid for is one of the bigger questions to answer for a team heading into a critical offseason for their second ugly, multiyear rebuild in a decade.

“He has the potential to be,” manager David Ross said. “We saw what he’s capable of early on. The league adjusted, and it took him a minute to adjust back. And I feel like he’s been a pretty solid player once he came back from being injured.”

A torrid two-week start led to a National League Rookie of the Month award, was followed by a lengthy slump and then a five-week finger injury.

The preseason Las Vegas favorite for Rookie of the Year probably won’t finish in the top five.

But Suzuki has performed increasingly well at the plate since returning from the injury in July (.275 with a .764 OPS) — including hitting .299 with five homers and an .846 OPS in his last 35 games (.304, .822 in September).

Has he seen enough major-league pitching and adjusted enough to the additional rigors of the MLB schedule and travel to know whether he’s an All-Star in this league — if not the MVP he was in Japan?

“At this [level] it’s where all the best of the best are,” he said through team interpreter Toy Matsushita. “So you can learn from a lot. And I know what’s needed to be able to be the best.

“I’m going to work on that during the offseason and make sure I’m ready by next season.”

What should the Cubs be able to expect? What kind of season does he expect?

“Obviously personal statistics are important,” he said, “but for me I think the most important thing is winning. When you win, the atmosphere in the locker room is amazing, so that’s what I want to feel next year. I want to win with this team and win a championship.”

That’s cool.

But the Cubs aren’t paying $85 million over five years — $99.6 million counting the posting fee — for a few nice catches, a team-friendly personality or even an inspiring team meeting during the postseason.

Ask Jason Heyward.

They expect Suzuki to hit. They need an upper-tier member of their lineup for that investment — especially when they send their top offensive performer, Willson Contreras, into free agent this winter.

It’s not often an $85 million player gets a first-year mulligan on a five-year deal. But the Cubs built that into their calculus of Seiya Suzuki’s value, team president Jed Hoyer repeatedly saying this season they expected an adjustment period this year.

But now it’s time for Suzuki, 28, to fulfill the promise of the deal.

And there have been plenty of signs, especially in the second half, that he might be prepared to do do that.

Consider the sizable challenges of the language barrier, other cultural changes, increased velocity from MLB pitchers daily, going from a one-time-zone league to four in the U.S., and a longer schedule that does not include a day off every Monday of the season.

“There’s a lot of games here. I’ve never experienced 20 straight games,” said Suzuki, who had a hard time identifying a single, biggest challenge to the switch.

“But at the end of my first year I’ve been able to learn a lot,” said Suzuki, who plans to prepare his body better for the rigors of the U.S.season. “I feel that’s going to benefit me next year.

“Numbers-wise, I feel like I’m not satisfied,” he added, “and I feel like I can do a lot better. The most important thing is I’m getting used to life here, and that’s going to be a huge benefit for me next year, baseball-wise, too. I’m excited about that.”

There’s still more to prove. But the Cubs seem confident in what they’ve seen so far as the project his prominent place in their plans to compete next year — no more mulligans allowed.

“I know he’s a worker and puts in the work to be the best he possibly can,” Ross said. “He’s still super young, ad it’s his first year in the league. I think we all would have liked to have seen him stay healthy the entire year and see what that was like.

“But there’s definitely real signs there of an All-Star-caliber player.”

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