MILWAUKEE – Shohei Otani is supposed to be Japan’s Babe Ruth, a potential top-of-the-rotation starter with a 100-mph fastball and a left-handed slugger who hit 22 homers last year for the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters. Imagine what kind of mad-scientist moves Cubs manager Joe Maddon could make with a talent like that.
“If he’s that freakin’ good, there’s a lot of things you could do,” Maddon said. “If he’s that good, it presents a lot of unique situations.”
Yes, the Cubs will be in on Otani, because any team that can afford the $20 million posting fee would be foolish not to make the recruiting pitch to a two-way player who’s only 23 years old and apparently willing to work for around the major-league minimum ($545,000) next season.
The Cubs want to be known for playing in October on an annual basis and won’t stop after the second straight National League Central title that feels inevitable after this playoff-atmosphere weekend against the Milwaukee Brewers at Miller Park.
Otani will be the big name on MLB Trade Rumors this offseason. The Cubs are capped under this collective bargaining agreement and could only offer a maximum $300,000 signing bonus. But if money had been the No. 1 priority, Otani would presumably just wait out Major League Baseball’s system for two more years and cash in with a $200 million megadeal.
“He’s not available right now,” team president Theo Epstein said. “There was a story that came out that said that he would request a post. I’m not going to talk about any player that’s not available.”
New York Yankees general manager Brian Cashman was among the group of officials who recently traveled to Sapporo to scout Otani in person. San Francisco Giants manager Bruce Bochy watched Otani highlights on a laptop and told Bay Area reporters: “I absolutely would play him every day.”
“There’s always the exception to the rule,” Maddon said. “I think the day after, the two days after you pitch, maybe not. You’d have to give your arm some kind of breather.
“He’s a perfect fit for an American League team then. When he’s not starting, he DHs. For an American League team to find a player like that — where you don’t have to go spend all that dough on a good DH and get this starting pitcher and a guy that can actually hit — kind of intriguing.
“If he’s that good, you can go National League (rules) when he pitches. If he’s that good, for one day, you would have an extra player on the bench. You could do whatever you want.”
There are a lot of ifs and unknowns with Otani, a low-cost, high-upside option that would fit with just about any team’s vision, from the defending World Series champs, to San Francisco’s rebuild, to the bright lights at Yankee Stadium or Fenway Park or Dodger Stadium.
“On the surface, I would say American League, easy, National League, get creative,” Maddon said. “But if he’s not pitching, you don’t want him like moving his arm that much, even throwing the ball in from the outfield.
“If he’s used to doing it, that might be something different entirely, too.”
The Cubs are loaded with position players and already have a good idea of what their Opening Day lineup could look like through 2021. But next year’s rotation should be dramatically reshaped with Jake Arrieta and John Lackey about to become free agents.
“It’s interesting,” said Maddon, thinking back to his years in player development. “But I think that can be done more in the minor leagues. If you have the DH and you have a young guy with a good arm — but you’re not sure and you see he runs well or he has exceptional pop, something that’s a really exciting offensive tool — let him DH a couple days a week in between his starts.”
Who knows? That pretty much sums up the Otani sweepstakes. The Cubs can sell their built-to-win foundation, iconic Wrigley Field, a world-class city and an international brand that will guarantee off-the-field endorsement money — and wait to see if that would be enough for baseball’s next big thing.