Why Japanese star Seiya Suzuki chose the Cubs over other high-profile suitors

Suzuki signed a five-year, $85 million contract with the Cubs.

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Seiya Suzuki joined Cubs workouts Friday after signing a five-year deal this week.

Seiya Suzuki joined Cubs workouts Friday after signing a five-year deal this week.

John Antonoff/Sun-Times

MESA, Ariz. — Japanese star Seiya Suzuki was concerned about the cold in Chicago. But the Cubs had the whole lockout to prepare for his questions.

When the topic came up in a meeting Monday at Hayama, a Japanese restaurant in Los Angeles, Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer brought to the table a set of charts that compared the summer months in Chicago to Hiroshima and the city of at least one other team that was pursuing Suzuki in free agency.

After the meeting, Suzuki had his agent cancel other meetings scheduled later in the week and coordinate a trip to Wrigley Field to see for himself.

By Friday, the Cubs were holding an introductory news conference for Suzuki, their most high-profile acquisition since Hoyer took the helm. Suzuki signed a five-year, $85 million deal. The Cubs also will pay a $14,625,000 posting fee to Suzuki’s Japanese club, the Hiroshima Toyo Carp.

“They’re obviously a really very good team,” Suzuki said Friday, through his translator, Toy Matsushita. “And their passion to get me on this team was something that really took me by heart. So, obviously, very excited to be here.”

The media room opened an hour before the press conference was scheduled, ushering in more than 40 reporters, domestic and international, as soon as it did.

“We’ve talked a lot about building the next great Cubs team,” Hoyer said in his opening remarks. “We signed Seiya to a five-year contract because we believe he’ll play a significant role in that success now and that success in the future.”

It was obvious how Suzuki, 27, fit into the Cubs’ plans. They’d scouted him for years, he was a player the club could grow with, and his power bat would immediately elevate their lineup.

But the five-time Nippon Professional Baseball League All-Star and Gold Glove winner certainly wasn’t flying under the radar. Teams in pursuit of Suzuki reportedly included the Padres, Dodgers, Giants, Red Sox and Mariners.

So, why the Cubs?

Their recruiting push began before the lockout, when Suzuki and his agent, Joel Wolfe of Wasserman, had 10 days between Suzuki’s posting date and the start of the transaction freeze to touch base with MLB teams. They conducted those initial conversations over Zoom.

“We had an exceptional amount of interest before,” Hoyer said. “Obviously prepared a lot of materials and did everything for that the original Zoom presentation. We felt like the Zoom went really well. And we just really kicked it into gear, both in our research, and in our preparation.”

Suzuki had interest from 12 teams before the lockout, Wolfe said, and they took Zoom meetings with eight. Suzuki and Wolfe told teams that the outfielder would not be signing before the lockout.

A few teams pushed to get an early deal done anyway. Hoyer called Wolfe on the eve of the lockout to say: Don’t forget about us. We will be waiting for you on the other side.

The Cubs lived up to that promise. On Monday, Hoyer, Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts and manager David Ross flew out to California to meet Suzuki and Wolfe.

“We decided that getting to know Seiya, it would be better to meet in a more casual environment than to sit in like our office boardroom, with the Cubs on one side of the table and us on the other side.”

So, they chose Hayama. And the setting did what they hoped it would, let everyone feel comfortable.

“He’s a great guy,” Ross said. “Everybody that was there was just trying to be themselves and make him understand that he was priority and what a fit we thought he was for our group.”

They got some extra recruiting help from Cubs second baseman Nick Madrigal, whom Wolfe also represents. Madrigal drew a series of signs on notebook paper, complete with stick figures of Madrigal, holding a ball and a mitt, and Suzuki wearing a Cubs hat and flexing.

“Cold weather not bad”

“Seiya Suzuki + Cubs = World Series”

Madrigal took pictures of himself holding the signs and sent them to Wolfe.

Suzuki had also sought advice from other Japanese players who had made the same transition, including Yu Davish, Yoshimoto Tsutsugo and Shogo Akiyama. Darvish, Suzuki said, told him the city of Chicago and its fan base were great and that he was going to love it.

“There was one caveat,” Wolfe said. “Before we could complete it, Seiya wanted to see Chicago for himself to make sure that it was the right place for him and Airi [Hatakeyama, Suzuki’s wife].”

Chicago sealed the deal.

On Friday morning, Suzuki donned a No. 27 Cubs jersey — “Mike Trout, I love you” he said, switching to English, when asked about his number choice. Just before heading into the media room at the Sloan Park complex, he met his new teammates in the clubhouse.

“I was just like, ‘Holy [cow], these are the guys that I watched on TV. So I felt like a rookie.”

Not just any rookie.

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