Cubs’ Seiya Suzuki facing transition on and off the field: ‘He’s really going to flourish’

Suzuki spent the past few months choosing a Major League Baseball team to join. Now that he has, the adjustment period begins.

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Seiya Suzuki rides back to the club house in a golf cart with his new team mates at Sloan park in Mesa, Arizona.

Seiya Suzuki rides back to the club house in a golf cart with his new team mates at Sloan park in Mesa, Arizona.

John Antonoff/Sun-Times

MESA, Ariz. — In a rare quiet moment Friday afternoon, Seiya Suzuki lounged in the grass by Sloan Park’s third-base line, stretching with new outfield teammates Jason Heyward, Ian Happ and Michael Hermosillo. Suzuki’s interpreter, Toy Matsushita, stood next to them, helping facilitate conversation.

Suzuki had just put on a show in his first batting practice with the Cubs, spraying home runs onto the empty berms beyond the wall. Next on the schedule was live pitching. In preparation, the team cleared the field of the droves of media members who had been following Suzuki around all day.

Suzuki and his teammates had time to just talk.

Suzuki, a five-time All-Star and Gold Glover in Japan’s central league, spent the past few months choosing an MLB team to join. Now that he has signed a five-year,

$85 million contract with the Cubs, the transition begins.

“It’s going to be a really short spring,” president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer said. “He’s going to deal with aspects of assimilation that we probably can’t imagine. But that’s going to pass. We really believe once he gets used to major-league pitching, once he gets used to playing over here, he’s really going to flourish.”

Finding a landing spot that would ease the transition off the field was a priority for Suzuki. His agent, Joel Wolfe of Wasserman, spoke highly of Cubs director of major-league travel Vijay Tekchandani and Pacific rim liaison Nao Masamoto. Before signing his contract, Suzuki spent time in Chicago to make sure it was a good fit.

“I want my family to have a comfortable lifestyle off the field,” Suzuki said. “That way I can focus on my game.”

Second baseman Nick Madrigal, whom Wolfe also represents, promised he’d do what he could to help. And he seems to be keeping that promise.

Madrigal played a role in the recruiting process, drawing messages like “Seiya Suzuki + Cubs = World Series” on pieces of lined paper and sending Wolfe pictures of the signs to show Suzuki. Then Friday morning, Madrigal greeted Suzuki in the equipment room before the Japanese star was scheduled to make the rounds in the clubhouse and at a news conference.

“He said he was a little bit nervous, so I just try to be there for him,” Madrigal said. “I know this is all new to him. And I can’t imagine coming into this atmosphere with all the attention on him.”

Suzuki jumped into spring-training workouts Friday afternoon, and Madrigal was never far, as the team ran the bases to kick things off.

Suzuki is expected to have an adjustment period on the field, too. He’ll be facing higher velocity pitching than he’s used to. He’ll have to get to know Wrigley Field’s right-field well. But the Cubs wouldn’t have offered the largest MLB deal for a Japanese position player to Suzuki if they weren’t confident that his skills would play well stateside.

“Looking at his swing-and-miss rates, and looking at what he did in different areas of the zone, we felt like it would translate really well,” Hoyer said. “I certainly felt like the power will translate, the exit velocities are elite. He’s a good all-around player.”

Manager David Ross said he hasn’t set a date yet for Suzuki’s first spring-training game. The Cubs will lean on Suzuki’s input to set a timeline for his next steps. Suzuki has run through outfield drills and taken live batting practice in his first two days of camp.

“This guy’s been all over, really the world, in the last few weeks,” Ross said, “and I want him to make sure he gets his feet under him.”

Even in the midst of a whirlwind transition, Suzuki’s personality has shown through. Take his news conference, for example. Asked why he chose to wear No. 27, Suzuki turned to a camera and switched to English.

“Mike Trout, I love you,” he said, eliciting a wave of laughter from the crowd.

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