Shohei Ohtani: Theo Epstein's White Whale

Shohei Ohtani: Theo Epstein's White Whale

In July of 2016, with his Chicago Cubs in the midst of an epic season, team president Theo Epstein had two simple words written on a board in the baseball operations offices at Wrigley Field: 

FIND PITCHING.

His team had the game’s best rotation at that time with stars like Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester headlining a group of arms that Epstein, GM Jed Hoyer and their staff had acquired since they arrived in Chicago in 2011. But Epstein knew that sooner, rather than later, the Cubs would need to add significant starting pitching to their organization if the Cubs were going to go on a run of contending for multiple World Series titles.

As the glow of the 2016 World Series title faded and the 2017 season kicked into gear, Epstein and Hoyer again turned their attention to finding high level starting pitching, which is the hardest commodity to stockpile in baseball. As the 2017 season turned towards the All-Star break, the Cubs stunned the baseball world by trading two of their best prospects to the crosstown White Sox in exchange for highly dependable lefty Jose Quintana who was a solid addition to the Cubs rotation and under contract through the 2020 season, giving the Cubs 3/5 of their rotation (plus Lester and Kyle Hendricks) under team control for three more seasons.

Now, as the baseball winter meetings get ready to commence in Orlando, Fla. on Dec. 9, the Cubs are looking to add two high-level arms to fill out their rotation. While there are a few attractive options in free agency such as Alex Cobb (Tampa Bay), Lance Lynn (St. Louis) and Yu Darvish (LA Dodgers), there is no one at the level of Japanese sensation Shohei Ohtani who is not only the best available pitcher in the world, but is also considered a high-level offensive player with 30+ HR potential. 

Multiple MLB scouts — including one rival front office executive — spoke with me regarding Ohtani with all of them concurring that Ohtani is indeed the real deal: 

“Remember the time you first watched a superstar player and you just knew he was going to be great? That’s what this kid is," the front office executive told me. "There is no way he isn’t going to be a superstar. He has all of the qualities that a player needs to be a success."

Ohtani is a true No. 1 starter with elite velocity that has reached 102 mph in the latter stages of his starts. He has a five-pitch mix at various speeds that make him very tough to game plan for. 

“Shohei can blow you away at 100 mph and he can make you look ridiculous with a breaking ball at 88," said an MLB scout who has watched Ohtani play over 50 times. "He can also sit somewhere in between and throw ANY of his pitches for a strike at varying speeds. Whoever gets him has a true ace who is only 23 years old and should be an instant star."

MLB sources have confirmed to me that the Cubs have spent significant time and money in their pursuit of Ohtani. The club has sent multiple scouts to Japan for weeks at a time and they have watched him pitch and play the outfield and they believe he can indeed do both on the north side of Chicago. 

A rival NL executive who has scouted Ohtani believes the Cubs will be on the short list of teams that have a realistic chance of signing him:

“Theo has been fascinated by this kid for a long time," the executive said. "He and Jed have been strategizing on how to land him in Chicago. They have the support system needed to make this work. They landed Daisuke Matsuzaka when he was in Boston and they have a good relationship with Ohtani’s agent (Nez Balelo) at CAA. 

"They are definitely one of the teams on his short list. But will he end up in the National League? That’s the big challenge.” 

The buzz in the baseball world has only a handful of teams with a real chance to land the franchise-changing star with the Yankees, Dodgers, Cubs, Red Sox, Mariners, Rangers and Blue Jays all considered possible landing spots. However, with Ohtani insistent on spending some time playing a position (either OF or DH) some in the game believe that favors an AL team.

So is this kid that good that NL teams are willing to allow him to pitch and play the OF for them? 

"The dude throws 100 mph consistently," former MLB outfielder Jonny Gomes — who played in Japan and saw Ohtani firsthand — told MLB Network Radio. "That plays. If you have the arm speed to throw 100 mph, guess what your slider's gonna do — yikes. And he also has a split, which is yikes with that arm speed. And he also has a changeup, and he also has a curveball. You're talking about five plus-plus-plus pitches.

"If he was in the draft, I think it would be a no-brainer right now that he'd be No. 1 overall."

What about Ohtani’s offensive potential and how it could translate to Major League Baseball? 

In 2017, Ohtani hit .332 with eight home runs in 65 games. The OF/DH sports a .286/.358/.500 career slash line with 48 home runs. 

"Now hitting-wise, is it gonna transfer, or is it not?," Gomes said. "I've seen the dude hit a fly ball that hit the roof of the Tokyo Dome. So, what does that tell you? That bat speed's there, that power’s there, that he's generating a lot out front.

"To be able to hit the roof of the Tokyo Dome is way more impressive than hitting any other roof in the states. It would be like hitting the roof in Seattle when it was closed, it's way up there."

Ohtani will have a major cultural adjustment coming from Japan to the United States, but he will also have a major adjustment transitioning into a veteran-laden major league locker room. Gomes believe that will be no problem for the 23 year old superstar. 

"I'm a big fan of the dude," Gomes told MLB Network. "I saw his work ethic, I saw how players treated him, I saw how respectful he was. Over there, it's all about seniority. Granted, he was the biggest star on the field at any given moment, but he still gave the utmost respect to seniority guys on his ball club."

Ohtani is also not about landing the highest contract at this point in his career. The Cubs and Dodgers are handicapped by having only $300,000 available to spend on an international signing while the Texas Rangers have $3.5 million dollars they can offer. 

“Shohei will probably make $20-30 million dollars in endorsements once he signs with an MLB team so whatever a team can offer him to sign right now is really irrelevant," an MLB executive said. "The kid is not about getting the last dollar. He doesn’t run the streets, he doesn’t party, all he is in love with is baseball. He is a phenomenal young man in every way which makes him a perfect fit wherever he signs.”

The Cubs are a perfect fit for Shohei Ohtani

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AP

The Cubs are a perfect fit for Shohei Ohtani

Let's get a disclaimer out of the way first: Every single team in baseball is a fit for Shohei Ohtani.

Who wouldn't want a 23-year-old pitcher who can touch triple digits with his fastball, provide quality at-bats (and power) from the left side and only costs a few million of payroll (plus a $20 million posting fee)?

But the Cubs may be the best fit in Major League Baseball for the young Japanese phenom.

Because the money is so reasonable — Ohtani could've made hundreds of millions and would've incited a bidding war unlike anything we've seen if he waited to be posted until he turned 25 — dollar signs aren't going to sway his decision in choosing where he spends the next few years of his life.

Which is something he acknowledged in Jorge L. Ortiz's article at USA TODAY earlier this week:


Ohtani’s agent, Nez Balelo, asked teams not to submit financial terms. More significantly, restrictions on international signings will limit Ohtani’s bonus to a maximum of about $3.5 million, depending on the club he chooses, and allow him to sign only a minor-league deal.

That makes him affordable to all teams, although they would also have to put up a posting fee of $20 million for the right to negotiate with him.

The letter asks the teams to provide information, in English and Japanese, on matters such as their player-development and medical staffs, their facilities, resources to ease Ohtani’s assimilation and the desirability of the franchise, city and marketplace. It also requests the clubs’ evaluation of Ohtani as a hitter and/or pitcher.


Let's start with player development and medical staffs — the Cubs have done a remarkable job of keeping pitchers healthy over the last few seasons even as they've played far more games than anybody else in baseball (though it will be interesting to see if that health continues with pitching coach Chris Bosio gone). The Cubs also have arguably the best young core in the game, so player development is a serious check in the Cubs' favor.

The Cubs' facilities are also top-notch in spring training and now in Chicago as well with the two-year-old state-of-the-art clubhouse and utilities.

Players have also raved recently about how the Cubs organization takes care of the players and their families off the field, treating them as more than just assets and making everybody in the player's family feel comfortable. Under Theo Epstein's regime, the Cubs have hosted a handful of Japanese players — Kyuji Fujikawa, Tsyoshi Wada, Munenori Kawasaki and most recently Koji Uehara — and the young clubhouse has created and environment of acceptance, regardless of background.

It doesn't get much more desirable than Chicago in the summer (I'm biased as a Chicago native, of course) plus historic Wrigley Field, a franchise with title expectations every season and a young core that should be competing in October every fall for the next few years. Only New York or Los Angeles could offer more in terms of a market than Chicago.

The Cubs front office and Joe Maddon's coaching staff are also very open-minded to bucking conventions, so they should have no problem with Ohtani playing both ways.

What manager would be better at maximizing Ohtani's two-way abilities than Maddon? He's always looking for the next "Madd Scientist" experiment to go against the grain.

The Cubs need a starting pitcher and if they trade from their core of young position players this winter, that would open up some playing time in the outfield for Ohtani.

Conceivably, the Cubs could pitch Ohtani on a Monday, sit him on Tuesday, start him Wednesday or Thursday or both in the outfield, then sit him again Friday and have him take his regular turn in the rotation Saturday. On his days off, Ohtani could also be utilized as a bat off the bench at the most opportune time late in a game.

Ohtani will have his choice of where he wants to play, but the Cubs certainly appear to check all the boxes.

Up close, White Sox see same big potential Cubs forecasted for Dylan Cease

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Up close, White Sox see same big potential Cubs forecasted for Dylan Cease

The Cubs made the Jose Quintana deal knowing it would have been more difficult to give up Dylan Cease if he was already performing at the Double-A level, and that the White Sox organization would be a good place to continue his education as a young pitcher.

While Eloy Jimenez keeps drawing ridiculous comparisons – the running total now includes Kris Bryant, Miguel Cabrera, Edgar Martinez and David Ortiz – Cease is more than just the other name prospect from the deal that shocked the baseball world during the All-Star break.

“We still project him as a starter,” White Sox general manager Rick Hahn said during this week’s GM meetings in Florida. “He certainly has the stuff where it’s easy to envision him as a potential dominant reliever. But to this point – for the foreseeable future – we deal with the starting and continue to develop him as a potential front-end arm.”

The Theo Epstein regime still hasn’t developed an impact homegrown pitcher, but that hasn’t stopped the Cubs from winning 292 games, six playoff rounds and a World Series title across the last three seasons, while still being in a strong position to win the National League Central again in 2018.

Without Quintana and his affordable contract that can run through 2020, Epstein’s front office might have been looking at the daunting possibility of trying to acquire three starting pitchers this winter.

While surveying a farm system in the middle of a natural downturn, Baseball America ranked seven pitchers on its top-10 list of prospects from the Cubs organization: Adbert Alzolay, Jose Albertos, Alex Lange, Oscar De La Cruz, Brendon Little, Thomas Hatch and Jen-Ho Tseng.

So far, only Alzolay, an Arizona Fall League Fall Star with seven starts for Double-A Tennessee on his resume, and Tseng, who made his big-league debut in September, have pitched above the A-ball level.

Cease – who went 0-8 with a 3.89 ERA for Class-A Kannapolis in his first nine starts in the White Sox system – has a 100-mph fastball and a big curveball and won’t turn 22 until next month. That stuff allowed Cease to pile up 126 strikeouts against 44 walks in 93.1 innings this year, putting him in the wave that includes Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez, Michael Kopech and Alec Hansen.

“Ideally, we have a lot of guys we project to be part of the future, very good, championship-caliber rotation,” Hahn said. “In an ideal world, there’s not going to be room at the inn for all of them. You only have five in that rotation and some of these guys will wind up in the bullpen. In reality, as players develop, you’re going to see some attrition.”

One spot after the White Sox grabbed Carlos Rodon with the No. 3 overall pick in the 2014 draft, the Cubs did Kyle Schwarber’s below-slot deal, using part of the savings to buy out Cease’s commitment to Vanderbilt University ($1.5 million bonus for a sixth-rounder) and supervise his recovery from Tommy John surgery on his right elbow.

Cease was never going to be on the fast track to Wrigley Field, and now the White Sox hope he can be part of the foundation on the South Side, where it’s easier to sell a rebuild after watching the Cubs and Houston Astros become World Series champions.

“It doesn’t change really for us internally in terms of our commitment or focus or our plan or our timeline or anything along those lines,” Hahn said. “I do think, perhaps, it helps the fan base understand a little bit about what the process looks like, where other teams have been and how long the path they took to get to the ultimate goal of winning a World Series (was). In Chicago, many fans saw it firsthand with the Cubs.

“There are certainly more and more examples in the game over the last several years to help sort of show fans the path and justification for what we’re (doing).”