Cubs right fielder Seiya Suzuki is “highly likely” to start the year on the injured list, writes Patrick Mooney of the Athletic. That has seemed a strong possibility in recent days after an MRI revealed a strain of his left oblique.
The team didn’t provide many specifics on Suzuki’s injury. They declined to narrow down the grade of the strain or a timetable this week, only announcing it as a “moderate strain” on Tuesday. President of baseball operations Jed Hoyer stopped short of ruling Suzuki out for the start of the season today but suggested an IL stint was on the table.
“We’re not going to put any firm timetables on it, but there are general expectations of what a ‘moderate’ oblique injury is,” Hoyer said (via Mooney). “That certainly puts Opening Day in strong jeopardy. We just want to make sure we get him completely healthy. When that is, I’m not sure. But when he does come back, he’s going to be ready to go and we’re not going to be concerned about it.”
Signed to a five-year, $85MM deal last offseason, Suzuki made a solid first impression against MLB pitching. He hit .262/.336/.433 with 14 home runs in 111 games, though a sprain of his left ring finger cost him a month of his rookie year. Suzuki walked at a solid 9.4% clip and made hard contact on an above-average 40.3% of his batted balls. His 24.7% strikeout rate was a couple points north of the league average but his contact rate on a per-pitch basis was strong.
It was an altogether encouraging first look, with Suzuki showing the foundation of solid or better contact skills, plate discipline and power. His year featured some peaks and valleys — most notably when he followed up a torrid first month with a dismal showing in May — but his overall offensive production checked in 16 percentage points above league average as measured by wRC+. Paired with his .315/.414/.570 showing over nine seasons at Japan’s top level, Suzuki entered 2023 as a potential middle-of-the-lineup presence.
That’ll likely be put on hold by the oblique issue. There still isn’t much clarity about when the Cubs expect him to return, though it’s not uncommon for oblique strains to sideline players for upwards of four to six weeks. If he does start off on the shelf, it appears right field will fall to Trey Mancini in the early going. Signed to a two-year free agent guarantee this offseason, the longtime Oriole is coming off a .239/.319/.391 showing with 18 homers in 587 plate appearances.
Mancini popped 35 homers back in 2019 but that season increasingly looks like an outlier in comparison to the rest of his career. He typically produces slightly above-average offensive marks, blending solid but not standout bat-to-ball tendencies and power. Mancini has a little under 2500 career innings of corner outfield work at the major league level. Public defensive metrics have generally panned his work in both left and right field, little surprise for a player who played mostly first base in college and in the minor leagues.
While a first base/designated hitter role better suits Mancini, he’s at least capable of holding down a corner outfield spot temporarily. Playing him in right field in the short term would leave a few more first base and DH at-bats for the likes of Christopher Morel, Patrick Wisdom and Edwin Ríos. The Cubs are planning to play Eric Hosmer at first base regularly against right-handed pitching but could turn to Wisdom there against southpaws.
Morel can also factor into the right field mix, as could the likes of Nelson Velazquez and non-roster invitee Mike Tauchman. Should Mancini be pressed into regular right field duty, that’d perhaps open a clearer path for first base prospect Matt Mervis — fresh off a monster season across three minor league levels — to earn his first big league call early in the year.