The video of what it would look like when the Cubs finally won the World Series resonated with Jon Lester, because he grew up around the Boston Red Sox, understood the players on that 2004 team got treated like kings and felt enough sense of history to choose No. 34 as a tribute to Kerry Wood, Walter Payton and Nolan Ryan.
Lester didn’t take the most guaranteed money when he signed a six-year, $155 million megadeal with a last-place team after the 2014 season. Players like Ben Zobrist and Jason Heyward felt the same pull the following winter, turning down bigger offers elsewhere for the chance to make history in Chicago.
Mission accomplished. Now what? Will the new recruiting pitch work on Japan’s Babe Ruth?
“Yeah, I can’t comment on him,” general manager Jed Hoyer said this week on NBC Sports Chicago’s Cubs Talk Podcast. “Obviously, it’s still sorting out.”
Shohei Ohtani is a baseball unicorn, the 2016 MVP in Japan’s Pacific League after using his 100-mph fastball to go 10-4 with a 1.86 ERA and his left-handed power to hit .322 with 22 homers and a 1.004 OPS. Given his age (23), elite skills and low acquisition cost under this collective bargaining agreement, the idea of Ohtani is a perfect fit for just about any big-league team.
The updates keep trickling out in reports: Ohtani hiring an agent (Nez Balelo of CAA Sports) to help clear his path to the United States; a tentative transfer agreement between Nippon Professional Baseball, Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association; and the Nippon-Ham Fighters announcing their star player will be made available through a posting system (which would presumably mean a $20 million fee).
The current labor deal caps the Cubs at a $300,000 maximum bonus for an under-25 international free agent during this signing period. The Associated Press reported the Texas Rangers ($3.535 million), New York Yankees ($3.25 million) and Minnesota Twins ($3.245 million) would be able to offer Ohtani the most money between now and June 15, 2018.
Does that really matter to someone who’s apparently unwilling to wait two more years for a $200 million contract, because he wants to play in the majors now?
The Cubs can’t discuss Ohtani yet – there are enough information gaps that some media reports also spell his name “Otani” – or answer those questions now.
But the Cubs have thought about how to market themselves at this time of year – when coaches and employees are seeking permission to interview with other teams and agents are taking calls about their clients – without the lure of 1908.
“I always joke that losing forever was a great thing, because no one ever wanted to leave before we won,” Hoyer said. “Now – and I give the Ricketts family almost all the credit on this – what you’re selling is just a first-class organization in a great city with a great fan base and a great ballpark.
“I think we do everything first class – and the fact that we do that is kind of known throughout the league now. The renovations are awesome. You come here and there’s a new clubhouse and you see all the (improvements around Wrigley Field with) the office and hotel and you realize this is a really vibrant place.
“If you’re going to play on a Tuesday night in May against a last-place team, you’re going to play in front of a sold-out crowd. I think players want that. We have been to the NLCS three years in a row, and I think they want to win as well. That’s what you’re selling. It’s a different sales pitch.
“We can’t sell, you know, the seventh-biggest gathering of humans for a parade anymore. ‘The Curse’ is over and that part’s gone. But I think what we’re now selling is still really good. It’s not unique. But it’s still really positive.”
The championship-drought angle didn’t really work on Masahiro Tanaka, who listened to that recruiting presentation inside a Beverly Hills mansion when the Cubs were coming off a 96-loss season in 2013. Tanaka processed the pitches in Southern California and ultimately grabbed a seven-year, $155 million offer from the Yankees that blew away the Cubs.
The Tanaka sweepstakes dragged into January 2014 and essentially kept the Cubs in a holding pattern where they made a new mascot their big offseason addition (Clark the Cub!) and set up a savings account for Theo Epstein’s baseball operations department. The leftover Tanaka money helped finance Lester’s contract and that remains a lesson in how the Cubs do business.
“We have some flexibility,” Hoyer said. “It’s important as we think about our financial flexibility – and every team does this – you have to look at multiple offseasons and multiple (trade) deadlines as far as how you’re going to allocate your money.
“It’s not just about ‘I have X to spend this winter’ and spending that amount to try to get better. And then you look up and you’re like: ‘Wait, I don’t have any flexibility next winter.’
“You constantly have to think through those issues as you’re spending money, as you’re making trades. Our goal is to be really good in ’18. But our bigger goal is to be really good during this entire window and try to make sure we have multiple bites at the apple.”
So the Cubs should put the full-court press on Ohtani and see what happens, reach out to Yu Darvish’s camp to keep the lines of communication open and stay in touch with Jake Arrieta and Wade Davis just in case. Epstein and Hoyer should keep an open mind during next week’s GM meetings in Florida and listen to any trade ideas involving their surplus of hitters.
But the Cubs also know next winter’s class of free agents will be bursting with so much more talent, their young core should be motivated this offseason and report to spring training with a renewed sense of hunger and this division is filled with retooling teams that may or may not be ready to compete.
“Having won that World Series, it does allow you to take that perspective a little more than it might have in a city that was starved to finally break ‘The Curse,’” Hoyer said. “There are other teams I won’t name – they’ve got to win one and every single year is the ultimate quest: ‘This is the year.’
“That’s not how we see it. I think 2018 is really important, but so is ’19 and so is ’20. That’s always been the case. But it’s easier to say that now – and easy to do that now – having won a World Series.”