Cubs

How Cubs will make their sales pitch to Shohei Ohtani and attack this offseason

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AP

How Cubs will make their sales pitch to Shohei Ohtani and attack this offseason

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.”

MLB.com's Cubs' 2018 Top Prospects list full of potential impact pitchers

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USA TODAY

MLB.com's Cubs' 2018 Top Prospects list full of potential impact pitchers

Could 2018 be the year that the Cubs finally see a top pitching prospect debut with the team? 

Thursday, MLB.com released its list of the Cubs' 2018 Top 30 Prospects, a group that includes six pitchers in the Top 10. The list ranks right-hander Adbert Alzolay as the Cubs' No 1. prospect, projecting him to debut with the team this season. 

Alzolay, 22, went 7-4 with a 2.99 ERA in 22 starts between Single-A Myrtle Beach and Double-A Tennessee last season. He also struck out 108 batters in 114 1/3 innings, using a repertoire that includes a fastball that tops out around 98 MPH (according to MLB.com).

Following Alzolay as the Cubs' No. 2 overall prospect is 19-year-old shortstop Aramis Ademan. Ademan hit .267 in just 68 games between Single-A Eugene and Single-A South Bend, though it should be noted that he has soared from No. 11 in MLB.com's 2017 ranks to his current No. 2 ranking. He is not projected to make his MLB debut until 2020, however.

Following Alzolay and Ademan on the list are five consecutive pitchers ranked 3-7, respectively. Oscar De La Cruz, No. 3 on the list, slides down from his 2017 ranking in which MLB.com listed him as the Cubs' top overall prospect. De La Cruz, 22, finished 2017 with a 3.34 ERA in 13 games (12 starts) between the Arizona League and Single-A Myrtle Beach.

De La Cruz is projected to make his MLB debut in 2019, while Jose Albertos (No. 4), Alex Lange (No. 5), Brendon Little (No. 6) and Thomas Hatch (No. 7) are projected to make their big league debuts in 2019 or 2020. All are right-handed (with the exception of Little) and starting pitchers.

Hatch (third round, 2016) and Lange (30th overall, 2017) and Little (27th overall, 2017) were all top draft picks by the Cubs in recent seasons.

Having numerous starting pitchers on the cusp of the big leagues represents a significant change of pace for the Cubs. 

Since Theo Epstein took over as team president in Oct. 2011, a plethora of top prospects have debuted and enjoyed success with the Cubs. Majority have been position players, though.

The likes of Albert Almora, Javier Báez, Kris Bryant, Willson Contreras, Anthony Rizzo and Addison Russell all contributed to the Cubs winning the World Series in 2016. Similarly, Ian Happ enjoyed a fair amount of success after making his MLB debut last season, hitting 24 home runs in just 115 games.

Ultimately, Alzolay would be the Cubs' first true top pitching prospect to make it to the big leagues in the Theo Epstein era. While him making it to the big leagues in 2018 is no guarantee, one would think a need for pitching will arise for the Cubs at some point, whether it be due to injury or simply for September roster expansion.

The Cubs have enjoyed tremendous success in recent years in terms of their top prospects succeeding in the MLB. If the trend continues, Alzolay should be a force to reckon with on the North Side for years to come.

Even with an entire spring schedule to go, guessing the Cubs' 25-man roster is pretty easy

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USA TODAY

Even with an entire spring schedule to go, guessing the Cubs' 25-man roster is pretty easy

MESA, Ariz. — The frequent mission of spring training is to iron out a 25-man roster.

But at Cubs camp, that mission seems to already be completed.

With an entire Cactus League schedule still to play, the Cubs’ 25-man group that will leave Arizona for the season-opener in Miami seems pretty well set.

The starting rotation: Jon Lester, Yu Darvish, Kyle Hendricks, Jose Quintana and Tyler Chatwood.

The position-player group: Willson Contreras, Victor Caratini, Anthony Rizzo, Javy Baez, Addison Russell, Kris Bryant, Tommy La Stella, Kyle Schwarber, Albert Almora Jr., Ian Happ, Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist.

The bullpen: Brandon Morrow, Steve Cishek, Pedro Strop, Carl Edwards Jr., Mike Montgomery, Brian Duensing, Justin Wilson and Justin Grimm.

Boom. There’s your 25.

Joe Maddon, do you agree?

“You guys and ladies could probably write down what you’re seeing and be pretty accurate,” Maddon said Thursday. “I can’t deny that, it’s true. Oftentimes, when you’re a pretty good ball club, that is the case. When you’re not so good, you always get auditions during spring training.

“I think what the boys have done is they’ve built up a nice cache in case things were to happen. The depth is outstanding. So you could probably narrow it down, who you think’s going to be the 25, and I won’t argue that.”

It’s the latest example in a camp that to this point has been full of them that the Cubs are one of baseball’s best teams and that only a World Series championship will fulfill expectations. Had the front office stuck with a starting rotation of Lester, Hendricks, Quintana, Chatwood and Montgomery, then there would’ve been a spot open in the bullpen. But the statement-making signing of Darvish jolted the Cubs into “best rotation in the game” status, sent Montgomery back to the bullpen and further locked the roster into place.

Guys like Grimm and La Stella have been forced off the 25-man roster at points in recent seasons, though even their spots seem safe. Maddon even said that a huge spring from someone else wouldn’t mean as much at what guys have done at the major league level in recent memory.

“Spring training performance, for me, it’s not very defining,” Maddon said. “You’re going to be playing against a lot of guys that aren’t going to be here, more Triple-A guys, even some Double-A guys. Some guys come in better shape, they normally look better early. The vibe’s different. You play a couple innings, you don’t get many at-bats, the pitcher doesn’t see hitters three times and vice versa. So I don’t worry about that as much.

“It’s more about, guys that might be fighting for a moment, what do they look like, does it look right, does it look good, how do they fit in? Is there somebody there that you scouted? Because what matters a lot is last year and what you did last year and the last couple months of last year.

“So of course guys that have been here probably have a bit of an upper hand, but we’re very open-minded about stuff. And I think when you look at the guys, you’re right, it’s probably pretty close to being set. But stuff happens.”

Could the recently signed Shae Simmons give Grimm an unexpected challenge for the final relief spot? Maddon said guys who have been with the Cubs in the recent past have a leg up. Could Chris Gimenez turn his experience with Darvish into a win over Caratini for the backup catcher spot? Maddon threw cold water on the "personal catcher" narrative last week.

Of course, Maddon left the door open the possibility of an injury that could open up a roster spot and even shake up the depth chart. But barring the unforeseen, this 25-man group looks locked into place.

That gives the Cubs an edge, perhaps, in that they can specifically find ways to tune up those guys rather than focus on getting enough at-bats for players who are fighting for roster spots. But most of that edge came during the winter, and in winters and summers past, when the front office built this team into a championship contender.

There have been plenty of years when the fans coming to Mesa to watch the Cubs play in spring training saw the blossoming of a big league player thanks to a monster spring or a surprise tear during March. That’s going to be unlikely this spring, a reflection of just how far this team has come.

“It’s easy for me to reflect on this because when I started out with the Rays, wow,” Maddon said. “That was a casting call trying to figure it out. You had very few settled positions when you walked in the door. And then as we got better, it became what we’re talking about. As we moved further along, you were pretty much set by the time (you got to spring training) except for one or two spots.

“So I think the better teams are like that.”

The Cubs are most definitely one of those better teams.