Chicago Cubs right fielder Seiya Suzuki is still considering whether to represent his country in the World Baseball Classic.
Japan team manager Hideki Kuriyama said at the winter meetings on Tuesday that the team will give Suzuki as much time as possible to make up his mind – even if that means his decision will linger until February.
“I’m really looking forward to his response,” Kuriyama said through an interpreter. “It’s been a tough year with everything – health issues, playing time, all things considered. Indeed, we are waiting for the club, we are waiting for everything from his side of the answer.
“He is undoubtedly the No. 1 outfield player in Japan and we really want him to play in this team.”
While Kuriyama said the rules have not been officially set for roster changes in the tournament, a baseball official confirmed to the Tribune that only pitchers can be replaced, and that can only happen after group play and the quarterfinals . WBC teams may carry a cab team of up to eight additional pitchers who would be eligible to be added to the roster in the two designated windows.
Despite those expected restrictions, Kuriyama did not say whether it was an all-or-nothing situation for the 28-year-old Suzuki to commit to playing in the entire WBC or if he could participate in one. The semifinals and finals are scheduled for March 19-21 in Miami, while Japan’s pool play (March 9-13) and quarterfinals (March 15-16) will be played in Toyko.
Given the inability to add position players in the middle of the tournament, the Cubs are prepared for Suzuki to sit out spring training and play the entire WBC with Japan.
Manager David Ross said Tuesday he had discussed the WBC with Suzuki.
“I put myself in his shoes,” Ross said. “I would have loved to play for Team USA. How cool is that? You will enter the best competition in the world and you will be able to compete at a high level for your country. I would never want to take that away from anyone and always push that experience (that) you should play if that’s where your heart is.
“He is our right starting player. He will be in line. So whether you have a clean spring training and things aren’t perfect to start our (season), if that was the case, or maybe it’s starting to catch fire because they’re already facing great pitching, none of us he knows that. But I don’t think it’s something to blame or make an excuse for.”
Kuriyama, however, did not communicate much with Suzuki about the looming decision. He declined to discuss whether anyone from Team Japan made a case to Suzuki about why he should play for his country in the WBC.
“I personally want Seiya to join as many games as possible,” Kuriyama said. “So I want him (with us) from the start.
“I will tell the players that we have all replaced them from the start if they don’t perform well. And he is part of it. So I will do my best to win the whole tournament.”
During the last WBC in 2017, the then 23-year-old Suzuki appeared in five matches for third-ranked Japan. He went 3-for-14 and posted a .313 on-base percentage with two runs scored.
Suzuki, 28, is coming off an uneven rookie season. He got off to a hot start in April, earning National League Rookie of the Month honors, but a shocking sprained left ring finger on an awkward slide into second base in late May at Cincinnati sidelined him for 35 games. After returning, Suzuki hit .270/.332/.434 with 10 home runs, 10 doubles and 25 RBI over his last 70 games.
It’s a tough spot for Suzuki, whose first season in Major League Baseball was marred by a lockout and required a season-long learning curve, including adjusting to a new culture. Playing in the WBC would mean a second straight abnormal start to his season.
“Ultimately, I’m going to support whatever he decides he wants to do,” Cubs president Jed Hoyer said last month at the general manager meetings. “In a perfect world, you’d be able to fully prepare for our season, but also represent your country.”