Former Hanshin Tigers outfielder Matt Murton said Sunday that he has completed a minor-league deal with the Chicago Cubs and will attend the National League team’s spring training.
The 34-year-old outfielder confirmed in an email to Kyodo News that he will be returning to the team where he made his major league debut in 2005.
The sides agreed on terms earlier this month, but the contract was conditional on Murton passing a physical. Until he makes the major-league roster, Murton will be a teammate of versatile and popular Japanese infielder Munenori Kawasaki.
In 2003, then Boston Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein made Murton a first-round pick as the 32nd player selected in the amateur draft. But a year later, the Red Sox dealt him to the Cubs as part of a four-team trade that included star shortstop Nomar Garciaparra.
Epstein, now the Cubs’ president of baseball operations, brings Murton back to the Windy City.
In 2006, in his second big league season at the age of 24, Murton played 144 games for Chicago and batted .297. He spent time with Oakland and Colorado before finding a new start in Japan, where he learned to master the art of hitting breaking pitches.
Murton feels that ability and his quick, short stroke will give him another chance in the majors.
“I think from an offensive standpoint, one of the ways you grow (in Japan) is that you are forced to hit off-speed pitches and learn how to read and react off of fastballs more often because you see so many breaking balls,” Murton said.
“So you go back to the United States, and if you can still maintain that ability to hit the fastball, you’ve now evolved an additional skill, which is learning to hit a slider or a breaking ball that you weren’t as good at when you left.”
In a December interview, Murton said his preference for the 2016 season would be to show what he can still do in the major leagues after rebuilding his career with six seasons in Japan’s Central League. That process started in his 2010 debut season, when he broke Ichiro Suzuki’s single-season hit record.
At the start of that year, Murton said his goal was to show what he could do as a prelude to a return to the United States, but the warm welcome he received in Japan and his solid results made returning a difficult decision.
After his first season, however, his relationship with the Tigers media became one of numerous ups and downs, and the roller-coaster came to an end in 2015 with his release.
“That was the hardest thing, walking out,” he told Kyodo News in December.
“The idea that you put six years in, you’re not perfect. You make plenty of mistakes and you kind of butt heads in certain situations, and you get painted in a way that you are a bad person.”
Murton said then that he had offers from South Korea and from big league clubs on minor league deals but that none were a good fit.
In his time here, Murton batted .310 with 1,020 hits and 77 home runs, scoring 369 runs and driving in 417. In addition to the 214-hit record, which was broken in dramatic fashion last season by the Seibu Lions’ Shogo Akiyama, Murton led the CL in batting average in 2014, and won four Best IX Awards.