Readers, I have a confession to make:
I own a Matt Murton shirsey.
This is, of course, an elliptical way of saying that I’ve got a soft spot for the redheaded outfielder. And so naturally, I was ecstatic when the Cubs signed Murton to a minor-league deal early yesterday morning. And although Murton will likely start his 2016 at Iowa and provide depth there if an injury or three takes place at the major-league level, his signing got me thinking: how many Cubs have left the team to go play in Japan? And how have those players fared in Nippon Professional Baseball?
I did some research, and the Cubs’ history with the NPB goes back quite a bit longer than I’d thought. The first notable MLB player to make the jump was none other that George Altman, an outfielder and All-Star for the abysmal early-’60s Cubs. Altman debuted for Chicago in 1960 at age 26, playing in 135 games and racking up 467 plate appearances, but hitting a mere .245/.312/.383—not well enough to make an impression. That poor first impression, though, wouldn’t last: the outfielder finished his first four-year stint with the Cubs with an average of 18 home runs a season and a .287/.351/.485 line overall, not to mention two consecutive All-Star appearances in 1961 and 1962. He even finished 14th in MVP voting in ’61.
Unfortunately, Altman had a hard time finding his groove after departing the Cubs following that great 1962 season, with brief and unmemorable sojourns in St. Louis and New York before three final limp seasons back on the North Side. It was those seasons, on the wrong side of 30, that led him to NPB before the 1968 campaign. The Chicago Tribune, at the time, noted the influence that Altman’s teammates Chico Fernandez and Gene Stephens had on his decision, as those two had previously played in and enjoyed Japan.i
Altman enjoyed Japan too. From 1968-1975—his age 35-42 seasons—he clubbed 205 home runs, walked as much as he struck out, and OPS’ed .938 for Lotte and Hanshin. He also reportedly received a salary increase, whereas he would have been mired at minor-league Tacoma were he to stay with the Cubs organization. All in all, things went pretty well for Mr. Altman, who—in a fascinating coincidence—was also one of the last Cubs to play in the Negro Leagues. Quite the career arc.
So, Altman was one of the first successful major leaguers to continue his career in Japan, but he would hardly be the last Cub to spend time in Nippon Professional Baseball. Decades later, another outfielder with a far less notable Cubs career would go on to onto have a far more notable career in NPB. Whereas Altman was a top-flight major-league player before declining due to age and finding a new lease on his career in Japan, Tuffy Rhodes managed exactly 0.0 WARP in MLB before hopping over the Pacific. In Japan, he would become something of a legend.
Following six poor seasons in the majors, Rhodes played 13 in Japan, mostly for Kintetsu as a part of their famed Itemae Lineup of the 1990s and 2000s. And in 2001, Rhodes tied an NPB record by hitting 55 home runs in a single season, a total shared at the time only by the legendary Sadaharu Oh. This caused some controversy at the time, of course, but to this day Rhodes still holds the record for career NPB home runs by a foreign-born player, with 464.
Rhodes helped pave the way for the “bad major leaguer finds his power stroke in Japan” archetype, which would be a path traveled by two more Cubs in the 2000s. Julio Zuleta played two brief seasons with Chicago at the turn of the millennium before signing with the Fukuoka Hawks, for whom he played four seasons. He added two more years in Japan with Lotte before a swan song season in Mexico, and ended with 150 total home runs in NPB. Micah Hoffpauir, for his part, tacked three NPB seasons onto his three MLB seasons with the Cubs, but he finished with a career Japanese OPS under .700.
Which brings us to the present, and the return of the prodigal ginger outfielder. Murton had a solid, if unremarkable, Cubs career from 2005-2008, posting a .294/.362/.448 line, which was good for a 105 OPS+ (hitting conditions in the late-2000s were much different than today). Many will remember that he was the starting left fielder for the eventual 2007 NL Central champion Cubs, but he was supplanted after Lou Piniella—and everyone else watching the Cubs on a day-to-day basis—decided that Alfonso Soriano was better suited for that corner outfield spot.
The next season, Murton found himself on a plane to Oakland, along with Sean Gallagher and some guy named Josh Donaldson, as a part of the deal that brought Rich Harden to Chicago in an effort to solidify the starting rotation. The first portion of his MLB career thereafter ended unceremoniously, with middling years for the A’s and Rockies, and he found himself out of the league and on his way to NPB at the age of 27.
Kazuto Yamazaki, in his BP Wrigleyville debut earlier this week, recalled Murton’s years with the Hanshin Tigers fondly, noted in the process his record-setting 214 hits during the 2010 season, and spoke briefly of Murton’s potential to make the Cubs this season. The fact that there is some chance Murton will make the Cubs this year is somewhat unusual. While Rhodes and Zuleta both slugged their way to great careers in NPB, Murton is the best player to have played first for the Cubs and later in Japan since Altman, and his pure hitting ability makes him a strong candidate to see MLB again—even if it’s not with the Cubs.
iPrell, Edward. “Altman Glad He Got Yen For Japanese Baseball.” Chicago Tribune. Jan. 22, 1969.
Lead photo courtesy Mark J. Rebilas—USA Today Sports.