Shota Imanaga made a great first impression on Cubs team eyeing Opening Day in Japan next year


MESA, Ariz. — The Chicago Cubs have been in advanced discussions about opening the 2025 season in Japan, sources confimed Sunday, though team officials were caught off guard by a mention in USA Today that the Cubs and Los Angeles Dodgers were “privately informed” that they were selected for that international showcase.

“Is it for sure?” Cubs manager Craig Counsell said. “I’m not in the private loop.”

“Is that confirmed?” Cubs pitcher Shota Imanaga said through an interpreter. “It would be an honor.”

There’s enough momentum behind this idea that it feels highly likely to happen. The Cubs and Dodgers are iconic franchises featuring prominent Japanese players. Shohei Ohtani would be the headliner in Tokyo, assuming he escapes a gambling scandal unscathed. But by Opening Day 2025, Dodgers pitcher Yoshinobu Yamamoto will be entering the second season of his 12-year, $325 million contract. And with Imanaga and Seiya Suzuki, the Cubs believe they will be perennial postseason contenders and major players for the next wave of Japanese talent.

“I have heard rumblings,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “I hope we’re included. I know there’s nothing finalized yet, but obviously it would make a lot of sense.”

Vibes are more important than stats in spring training and Cubs personnel have been raving about Imanaga and Suzuki, who should benefit from the presence of another familiar face. Wander around the Sloan Park training complex and there’s Imanaga throwing a football with another pitcher. There’s Imanaga chatting up third baseman Christopher Morel, who grew up in the Dominican Republic. There’s Imanaga saying “bless you” in English when an American reporter sneezes.

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Adbert Alzolay, left, speaks with Shota Imanaga during spring training. (Rick Scuteri / USA Today)

“We were telling Seiya,” Cubs pitcher Jordan Wicks said. “We were like, ‘He’s killing you in the English-speaking category.’ Seiya just laughs.”

Suzuki, who posted a .938 OPS in the second half of last season, appears to be on the verge of another offensive breakthrough. This has been the first “normal” spring training for Suzuki, who signed his five-year, $85 million contract after Major League Baseball’s lockout ended in 2022 and missed last year’s World Baseball Classic with an oblique injury. Even with Cody Bellinger back in the lineup, the Cubs wouldn’t be surprised if Suzuki winds up being their best hitter this year. For Suzuki, the transition period is over.

Recognizing those adjustments will not be easy, Imanaga avoided clinging to his interpreter and looked for moments to communicate on his own with teammates and coaches. Those gestures did not go unnoticed. As Cubs pitcher Jameson Taillon said, “He’s making a really serious effort to get to know guys and understand how everything operates here.”

As an organization, the Cubs also have a better understanding and better resources after working with Suzuki for two seasons. That perspective became part of the recruiting pitch as the Cubs closed a four-year, $53 million deal with Imanaga. After getting into the rhythm of spring training and immersing himself in the clubhouse, this new environment feels familiar.

“Now I’m able to focus on baseball,” Imanaga said through an interpreter. “I’m really excited going into the season. I’m going to have my ups and downs, but my teammates are great. I know they’re going to support me.”

Imanaga is lined up to start the Wrigley Field opener on April 1. Counsell referenced Imanaga’s introductory press conference — when the pitcher perfectly delivered the lyrics to “Go Cubs Go” — as a preview of the personality that will be on display. Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy already reached out to Yu Darvish for an expert opinion on how to handle Imanaga’s transition and received this response: “Let Shota be Shota.”

“He’s curious,” Counsell said. “Sometimes you have to be careful with information. It can paralyze you, right? So you always have to be careful when we use it. We give it to players and see how it gets digested. Shota’s got the ability to hear it and (say), ‘Ah, that doesn’t work,’ and throw it out and keep the stuff that works for him. That’s just how his mind works. It allows him to adjust pretty quickly.”

There’s always a reason to be optimistic during spring training. But it would have been hard to make a better first impression. Maybe Imanaga will be the Opening Day starter next year in Japan.

“I just want to thank the Cubs staff and everybody in the locker room,” Imanaga said through an interpreter. “I haven’t thrown a pitch in the major leagues yet and they’ve made it very comfortable for me.”

The Athletic’s Fabian Ardaya contributed to this story.

(Top photo of Imanaga: Rick Scuteri / USA Today)





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