PHOENIX (AP) — The Cincinnati Reds hope their long-running search for a consistent leadoff hitter comes to an end with Shogo Akiyama.
The first Japanese-born player in franchise history signed a three-year, $21 million deal during the offseason and is part of the team’s extensive overhaul. Mike Moustakas, Nick Castellanos, Wade Miley and Pedro Strop were also added to end a streak of six straight losing seasons.
But it’s the 32-year-old Akiyama who might be the most intriguing. He was a consistent star in Nippon Professional Baseball over the past five seasons, hitting over .300 four times while flashing consistent power and providing stellar defense.
If he can do something similar in Cincinnati, the Reds will be thrilled.
“There’s only 60 games and obviously the goal is to make the playoffs,” Akiyama said through an interpreter. “My personal goal is to play in every game so I just want to compete in every single game I play. That’s what I want to bring.”
Here’s a look at 10 players to watch for the upcoming season. This week’s focus is on the NL and AL Central Divisions.
CHICAGO WHITE SOX: RHP Lucas Giolito. The former first-round pick developed into an All-Star last season, finishing with a 14-9 record, 3.41 ERA and 228 strikeouts in 176 innings. He’s still young — turning 26 on Tuesday — and part of the White Sox’s young nucleus that the franchise hopes can lead a turnaround.
CLEVELAND INDIANS: SS Francisco Lindor. The 26-year-old shortstop is an established star and had another great year in 2019, batting .284 with 32 homers, 22 stolen bases and winning a Gold Glove. The problem for the Indians is they probably can’t afford to keep him when he hits the free agency market following the 2021 season. A blockbuster trade could happen sooner rather than later.
DETROIT TIGERS: RHP Michael Fulmer. The 27-year-old righty is trying to come back from Tommy John surgery, which cost him the entire 2019 season. He was one of the game’s intriguing young pitchers just a few years ago, winning Rookie of the Year in 2016 and making the All-Star team in 2017.
KANSAS CITY ROYALS: C Salvador Pérez. One of the game’s best catchers was sidelined all of last season while recovering from Tommy John surgery. The 30-year-old is also dealing with COVID-19, though he’s said he’s asymptomatic. He’s a six-time All-Star and five-time Gold Glove winner.
MINNESOTA TWINS: OF Byron Buxton. The 26-year-old has been considered a future star for the better part of a decade, but hasn’t quite been able to deliver on his potential. He’s had a few good moments — especially in 2017 when he won a Gold Glove — but the Twins hope he can avoid injuries and provide consistent production.
CHICAGO CUBS: OF/DH Kyle Schwarber. The National League has decided to use the DH during this abbreviated season and one of the obvious candidates for the Cubs would be Schwarber. The 27-year-old has never been a great fielder, but there’s no doubt he can provide punch with his bat. He hit a career-high 38 homers last season.
MILWAUKEE BREWERS: C Omar Narváez. He’s the clear-cut starting catcher after the Brewers lost All-Star Yasmani Grandal to the White Sox in free agency. The 28-year-old had a breakout season with the Mariners last season, batting .278 with 22 homers. His bat isn’t a question but his defensive work behind the plate will be closely watched.
PITTSBURGH PIRATES: OF Gregory Polanco. The Pirates hope that the 28-year-old’s surgically-repaired left shoulder is ready to go. He was limited to just 42 games last season because of lingering soreness. Back in 2018, he was one of the team’s best hitters, finishing with a .254 average, 32 doubles and 23 homers.
ST LOUIS CARDINALS: IF/OF Tommy Edman. The 25-year-old came out of nowhere to become a crucial piece for the Cardinals during their playoff push last year. He’s a versatile defender who can play in the infield or outfield and was good with the bat in 2019, finishing with a .304 average, 11 homers and 15 stolen bases in a little more than half of a season.
AP Sports Writers Steve Megargee, Joe Kay, Dave Campbell and Dave Skretta contributed to this story.