Jose Quintana

What would the Cubs look like if Shohei Ohtani decides to come to Chicago?

What would the Cubs look like if Shohei Ohtani decides to come to Chicago?

What would the Cubs look like with Shohei Ohtani in the mix?

All the attention this week has been on which team will land the Japanese superstar, a stellar pitcher and hitter who has met or will meet with seven teams this week. The Cubs, who reportedly met with Ohtani on Tuesday, are competing with six fellow finalists: the Los Angeles Dodgers, Los Angeles Angels, San Francisco Giants, San Diego Padres, Seattle Mariners and Texas Rangers.

The North Siders could be facing an uphill battle, with reports Sunday indicating Ohtani would prefer a smaller-market team on the West Coast. But what if the Cubs do land Ohtani? What comes next?

Well, most notably, he'd slide into a starting rotation that could certainly use him after losing two arms to free agency after the end of the 2017 season. With Jake Arrieta and John Lackey presumably gone, the Cubs' starting staff has just three locked-in names at the moment in Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks and Jose Quintana. Adding Ohtani, however, would erase a lot of the uncertainty behind those three returning pitchers. Based on the makeup of their roster, it figures the Cubs would covet Ohtani's arm more than his bat, and he's a guy that can throw a 100-mph fastball. That's always welcome in the big leagues. While, of course, it's still unknown how his game will translate from Japan to Major League Baseball, if the Cubs were to sign Ohtani, it would go a long way toward taking care of their offseason to-do list when it comes to starting pitching.

And really that would be enough, but the 23-year-old Ohtani is unique in his success as both a pitcher and a hitter. He supposedly really wants to bat and play the field on days when he's not pitching. While you might think an American League team would make more sense, allowing him to DH four out of five days and not risk injury while playing the field, four of the seven finalists are National League clubs, including the Cubs.

Ohtani's addition as a four-days-out-of-five outfielder would create a much more difficult puzzle than his addition as a pitcher. Fortunately for the Cubs, that's the kind of puzzle Joe Maddon likes. After watching Maddon tinker with versatile position players for the past three seasons, it makes sense that he'd love to have someone like Ohtani, who he could even move between the pitcher's mound and the outfield throughout the same game. Remember, this is the skipper who put Travis Wood in left field.

For Theo Epstein's front office, though, things might be a little trickier. The Cubs' outfield is crowded enough as it is, with Albert Almora Jr., Ian Happ, Jason Heyward, Kyle Schwarber and Ben Zobrist all candidates for those three outfield spots — and obviously Happ and Zobrist can log time on the infield, too. There's been plenty of speculation that the Cubs might try to trade one of those younger guys, such as Schwarber or Happ, for starting pitching help this offseason. But an Ohtani decision to come to the Cubs would undoubtedly impact that, as well. Maddon likes to rotate those guys around, too, and Ohtani's addition would still allow him to do just that, with Ohtani leaving the outfield to pitch every fifth day.

It's unknown how much playing time Epstein, Maddon and the Cubs would want to give Ohtani in the field, who is about to embark on his first season in the majors and who as a pitcher would carry an increased worry about injury. Are they looking at him as an everyday outfielder, an infrequent outfielder or just the team's No. 1 pinch hitter when he's not pitching? That would all remain to be seen. But if Ohtani chooses the Cubs, it's unlikely he would do so without some assurance that he could hit and play the field on a regular basis, even if not every day.

There wouldn't be too much pressure on Ohtani to be the team's top hitter, what with Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Willson Contreras hitting in the same lineup. But his addition would be an important one to a lineup that went quiet during this year's postseason series against the Washington Nationals and aforementioned Dodgers. As for where he would bat in that lineup, who knows, with Maddon constantly moving his pieces around. Could Ohtani even fill the Cubs' need at the top of the order?

One thing's certain, though, when it comes to Ohtani's bat: On the days he pitches, the Cubs would have the best top-to-bottom, 1-through-9 hitting lineup in the NL. Cubs pitchers have been fine at the plate in recent seasons, but adding an actual hitter to that group would be something else entirely. Ohtani would be far from the automatic out most pitchers are viewed as.

The dual-threat Ohtani is being billed as the future of baseball. And while the baseball world waits for him to pick a team, it's fun to think about how he could alter the future of the Cubs.

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.”

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).”