Jed Hoyer

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.”

Game on as Jake Arrieta, Wade Davis and Alex Cobb turn down qualifying offers

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AP

Game on as Jake Arrieta, Wade Davis and Alex Cobb turn down qualifying offers

During the middle of Jake Arrieta’s 2015 Cy Young Award campaign, super-agent Scott Boras compared the emerging Cubs pitcher to another client – Max Scherzer – in the first season of a seven-year, $210 million megadeal with the Washington Nationals.

Now don’t focus as much on the money – though that obviously matters – as when Scherzer arrived for that Washington press conference to put on his new Nationals jersey: Jan. 21, 2015.

It might take Boras a while to find a new home for his “big squirrel with a lot of nuts in his trees.” Teams have been gearing up for next winter’s monster Bryce Harper/Manny Machado free-agent class for years. Mystery surrounds Shohei Ohtani, Japan’s Babe Ruth, and the posting system with Nippon Professional Baseball. Major League Baseball’s competitive balance tax may also have a chilling effect this offseason.

As expected, Arrieta, All-Star closer Wade Davis and pitcher Alex Cobb were among the group of free agents who went 9-for-9 in declining the one-year, $17.4 million qualifying offer before Thursday’s deadline.

With that formality out of the way, if Arrieta and Davis sign elsewhere, the Cubs will receive two third-round picks in the 2018 draft.

By staying under the $195 million luxury-tax threshold this year, the Cubs would have to give up a second-round draft pick and $500,000 from their international bonus pool to sign Cobb, an obvious target given their connections to the Tampa Bay Rays, or Lance Lynn, another starter on their radar who turned down a qualifying offer from the St. Louis Cardinals.

That collectively bargained luxury-tax system became a central part of the Boras media show on Wednesday outside the Waldorf Astoria Orlando, where he introduced “Playoffville” as his new go-to analogy at the end of the general manager meetings.

“The team cutting payroll is treating their family where they’re staying in a neighborhood that has less protection for winning,” Boras said. “They’re not living in the gated community of Playoffville. Certainly, they’re saving a de minimis property tax, but the reality of it is there’s less firemen in the bullpen. There’s less financial analysts sitting in the press boxes.

“The rooms in the house are less, so obviously you’re going to have less franchise players. When you move to that 12-room home in Playoffville, they generally are filled with the people that allow you to really achieve what your family – your regional family – wants to achieve. And that is winning.”

Boras also represents four other players who rejected qualifying offers – J.D Martinez, Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas and Greg Holland – another reason why this could be a long winter of Arrieta rumors, slow-playing negotiations and LOL metaphors.

Let’s make a deal: Cubs will be open-minded at GM meetings and ready to trade for pitching

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AP

Let’s make a deal: Cubs will be open-minded at GM meetings and ready to trade for pitching

Any Cubs players who might have gotten a little too comfortable during the World Series victory tour should feel a little more on edge this offseason, because Theo Epstein’s front office sounds willing to make big changes that would shake up this team.

The bookends to a second straight division title and a gutsy playoff-series win over the Washington Nationals became an unfocused 43-45 first half and a disappointing National League Championship Series where the Cubs looked checked out and ready to go on vacation.

Whether that can just be written off as a bad World Series hangover – or says something more about the clubhouse dynamics – the Cubs already understood this would be a difficult offseason.

Jake Arrieta, John Lackey and Wade Davis becoming free agents means replacing 40 percent of a championship rotation and an All-Star closer – while all this cheap labor is about to get expensive through the arbitration system and the farm system still isn’t producing impact homegrown pitching yet.

The underlying risk to betting so heavily on hitters – a good long-term strategy – is that one year you might not be able to piece the pitching staff together and stay healthy. Any big contract handed out this offseason will have to be weighed against next winter’s superior class of free agents.

All this means the Cubs should be rethinking The Core this week at the general managers meetings in Orlando, Florida, finding out the true value of their young hitters and if it makes sense to flip one or two in another big trade for pitching.

“We have to be open-minded,” GM Jed Hoyer said. “We’re loyal to the guys that have won with us. And we’re loyal to the guys that have been drafted and developed and gotten here, no question. But they’re talented and we’re going to be asked about them.

“Our No. 1 loyalty has to be to the Cubs and to the Cubs fans and making sure that we can try to put ourselves in position to win another title, so I think we have to be open-minded.

“Certainly, I’d love to have an offseason where we didn’t have to do anything like that. But in order to get better and make improvements in certain areas, we might.”

From the 2015 trade deadline where they didn’t make a splash by moving Javier Baez for a frontline starter, to making Kyle Schwarber off-limits while he recovered from knee surgery during a World Series season, to not touching the big-league roster this summer while making the Jose Quintana deal with the White Sox, the Cubs have repeated different versions of: These are our guys.

But from Epstein’s end-of-season autopsy after the Los Angeles Dodgers dominated the NLCS to Hoyer’s media rounds to the clumsy way manager Joe Maddon handled a coaching-staff housecleaning, the Cubs don’t sound too attached or sentimental now.

It’s Epstein not dismissing a question about whether Baez should displace All-Star shortstop Addison Russell and admitting the Cubs frequently have those internal discussions.

It’s the 24/7 nature of Twitter and MLB Trade Rumors and the Cubs being a big-market team that moves the needle.

It’s Chris Bosio, John Mallee and Gary Jones getting fired after three straight trips to the NLCS – Brandon Hyde got promoted to bench coach after Dave Martinez took Washington’s manager job – and Jim Hickey, Chili Davis and Brian Butterfield getting hired.

“I wouldn’t assume anything based on the coaching changes,” Hoyer said. “Each one, we felt strongly about to help us get better. People overuse, I think, a ‘different voice’ and ‘different message.’ That’s something people say a lot as a kind of catch-all when they let someone go. In this case, it really was accurate.

“This group of players, they’ve been together for three years. They’ve had a lot of success. I think they’ve done some things really well. Some of the things we felt like we could improve upon as a group – situational hitting, using the whole field, sort of becoming a little bit less pitch-able as an offense – that was important. Chili Davis was perfect for that at that moment.

“Our overall base-running, at times, has not been as good as certain other areas of our team. We felt like that was something we could improve upon. This was really about addressing with our current player group some of the things we haven’t necessarily done as well as we’d hoped.

“As a front office, and working with Joe, I do think it’s our job to think about: ‘What can we do to help this group of players improve?’ Those were the moves we made to do that.”

At some point, the Cubs will come to this conclusion: “Different players.” That doesn’t necessarily mean wholesale changes. Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Willson Contreras will be in the middle of the lineup for years to come. Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks and Quintana should be a Big Three at the top of next season’s rotation. It’s hard to imagine the Cubs actually breaking up the Russell-Baez double-play combination this quickly and leaving themselves exposed at shortstop.

“All in all, one of the things I really like about this group is this group is going to be together for a while,” Hoyer said. “Fans like seeing the same faces, and when people are at the home opener next year, I think that our position-playing group will look pretty similar.”

But this could be a test of the organization’s man crush on Schwarber. Imagine what center fielder Albert Almora Jr. could do for a rebuilding team with a 150-game runway. Ian Happ can be marketed as an infielder/outfielder and a switch-hitter with potential 30-homer power. If Victor Caratini had come along several years ago, we would all be hyping him as the next catcher at Wrigley Field. Let the wild rumors begin Monday at the Waldorf Astoria Orlando.