Cubs

Meet the competition: Cubs up against six other finalists in chase for Shohei Ohtani

Meet the competition: Cubs up against six other finalists in chase for Shohei Ohtani

The Cubs are in the running for Shohei Ohtani. But they're not the only ones.

According to multiple reports, the Japanese superstar has narrowed his list of possible destinations down to seven teams: the Cubs, the Texas Rangers and five teams that play on the West Coast — the Los Angeles Dodgers, Los Angeles Angels, San Diego Padres, San Francisco Giants and Seattle Mariners. Ohtani is expected to meet with all these teams this week.

It sounds like the Cubs could be facing an uphill battle, with Sunday night's report-a-palooza including the interesting tidbits that Ohtani prefers to play on the West Coast and in a smaller market. But the Cubs still being in the mix is obviously good news for Theo Epstein's front office, which according to NBC Sports' David Kaplan has poured a lot of time and money into scouting Ohtani and is pulling out all the stops in order to bring him to Chicago.

The Cubs obviously have a lot to sell to the 23-year-old phenom who has dazzled as both a pitcher and a hitter and wants to keep doing both things as a major leaguer. For one, the Cubs have a wide-open championship window with all their young talent, including some of the best hitters in the game in Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo and a stellar three-fifths of a starting rotation in Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks and Jose Quintana. Plus, they have a recent history of bringing in Japanese players and a famously creative manager in Joe Maddon who loves utilizing players' versatility and would surely come up with something crazy to do with a guy that can pitch and play outfield.

But the other six teams have selling points, too. Money likely won't play a huge factor, what with international-singing rules that mean Ohtani — not yet 25 years old — will need to sign a minor league deal. The most he can make is $3.5 million with the Rangers. The Cubs can offer only $300,000.

And of course Ohtani, with his immense talent, is a fit for all of these teams. He can throw a 100-mph fastball, sliding him right into anyone's rotation, and he can hit and hit with power, a boost to any of these teams' lineup. He hit .332 with eight home runs in 65 games this past season.

There's one school of thought that argues an American League team would be a better fit for Ohtani because he could DH on days when he's not pitching, fulfilling his desire to keep hitting and the team's desire to not see one of their top pitchers risk injury. If Ohtani is bent on playing the field over DH-ing, or if an NL team is fine with that injury risk, then maybe this isn't a big deal. But you could argue that an AL team could have an upper hand. But then again, only three of the seven finalists are AL teams.

So, with those things in mind, here's a look at what each of the Cubs' competitors has going for it in the chase for Ohtani.

Dodgers

Talk about a wide-open championship window. More than any other team on the list besides the Cubs, the Dodgers can pitch the potential to win a title right away. They are the defending National League champions and could team Ohtani with Clayton Kershaw in the rotation and guys like Corey Seager, Cody Bellinger and Justin Turner in the field. They obviously fit Ohtani's reported West Coast preference but don't count as a smaller market.

Angels

Despite boasting baseball's best player, the Halos have made the postseason just once during Mike Trout's career. Adding Ohtani could certainly change that, though. The Angels could pitch Ohtani on playing alongside Trout in the outfield. They fit the West Coast bill but still count as that Los Angeles media market, even though they play in Anaheim.

Padres

The inclusion of teams like the Padres and Mariners show that the current ability to win a championship might not be one of Ohtani's most important criteria. The Fathers haven't been to the postseason since 2006. But they do check off those West Coast and smaller-market boxes. And, per a Monday tweet from Jon Morosi, Ohtani is "familiar and comfortable" with the team's spring training complex, which it shares with the Mariners.

Giants

The Giants are an interesting option here. It's not a small market at all, though it's certainly smaller than New York (it was Ohtani turning down the New York Yankees that sparked this whole small-market business in the first place). It is on the West Coast. But more importantly, perhaps, the Giants could be in line to have one of the biggest offseasons ever. Not only are they on Ohtani's list of finalists, but they are reportedly attempting to bring NL MVP Giancarlo Stanton to the Bay Area in a trade with the Miami Marlins. Though if Ohtani wants to avoid a media circus, then maybe the Stanton element hurts the Giants' chances. Who knows.

Mariners

This would seem to be the most logical landing spot for Ohtani given his preferences for a smaller market on the West Coast. Plus, the Mariners have a noteworthy history with Japanese players, most prominently the 12 years Ichiro Suzuki spent in the Pacific Northwest. The M's have an even longer postseason drought than the aforementioned Padres, without a playoff appearance since 2001. But Ohtani would be able to play alongside fellow stars like Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz and Felix Hernandez, meaning the Mariners, who were in that crowded AL Wild Card race till late last season, could suddenly be World Series contenders. And, per a Monday tweet from Jon Morosi, Ohtani is "familiar and comfortable" with the team's spring training complex, which it shares with the Padres.

Rangers

The Rangers have the most money to offer Ohtani, and typically you'd think that would be the No. 1 priority. But that doesn't seem to be the case, what with Ohtani's stated preferences. Dallas is a big market by population numbers, but the Rangers have rarely been one of baseball's more talked-about teams. And though Texas is nowhere near the West Coast, the Rangers play in a division that constantly sends them out there to play the Angels, Mariners and Oakland A's.

A peek behind the curtain at what makes Joe Espada such an intriguing managerial candidate for Cubs

A peek behind the curtain at what makes Joe Espada such an intriguing managerial candidate for Cubs

As the Cubs managerial search continues, the Astros are vying for their second World Series championship in a three-year span.

Coincidentally, the man leading Houston once envisioned himself doing the same thing on the North Side of Chicago. It’s strange how baseball works sometimes. 

A.J. Hinch — who interviewed for the Cubs managerial job in 2013 — was disappointed when Theo Epstein and Co. chose Rick Renteria to take the reins of the club instead, especially given his managerial experience. But then again, Hinch recognizes he still could have been pushed out a year later for Joe Maddon the same way Renteria was. So, maybe things did work out best for everyone.

Between that history and Hinch's time with Jed Hoyer in San Diego, it explains why Hinch knows a thing or two about what the Cubs brass is looking for in their next manager and the process they are taking to find the right guy to steer the ship.

That guy might end up being Hinch’s current bench coach Joe Espada, who had a second interview with Epstein's front office this week.

“Joe and I were Triple-A roommates back in Oakland,” Hinch said. “I tried to hire him in Arizona as a first- or third-base coach when I became manager in Arizona and he immediately got promoted to the Marlins coaching staff. So when he was with the Yankees and we eliminated them in the ALCS in 2017, Cora was just about to be named the manager of Red Sox. I immediately asked for permission to speak to Joe and he was my choice; he was my hand-picked guy [to take over as Astros bench coach] immediately.”

And it appears, Espada will soon become someone else’s “hand-picked guy” to manage.

Will that be with the Cubs?

“He’s a well-rounded baseball man,” Hinch said. “He’s been in a few places and so he’s seen and done virtually everything to prepare himself to manage. From coaching in Miami to being with the Yankees on successful teams, to being a bench coach here. He’s been around decision-making, he’s been around high end winning and he’s intellectually curious.” 

Besides his coaching resume, Espada is thought to bring other innate characteristics to the table that would appeal to any organization. The Cubs liked what they saw and heard enough to bring him in for a second interview, which was no surprise to Hinch.

“He’s organized, diligent, he’s very fair to people, he’s a good family man.” Hinch said. “All attributes that help you build something in the clubhouse that ultimately leads to winning. The only thing untested in him is managing. And any time you talk about someone without managerial experience, I think you’re just going to have to learn on the job, period. There’s been plenty of examples of guys that have done it and Joe is really good. The potential could be very quick for him. A lot of teams have asked about him.” 

Naturally, the same could be said for David Ross, a candidate Hinch also spoke highly about.

“I think he’d be really good," the Astros manager said of Ross. "If he’s all in, I’ll love it because I think he could learn quickly. He’s got immediate credibility. I think the player buy-in is there and it would be interesting to build a staff around him.”

The intrigue will continue to grow in what now seems to be a two-horse race, but with the World Series getting underway the Cubs will likely wait for an off day or the conclusion of the Fall Classic to make an announcement. And even though their team isn’t playing, Cubs fans can still keep an eye on Espada as well as former Cubs bench coach Dave Martinez as the Astros and Nationals take center stage in the baseball world. 

As Pedro Strop enters free agency for the first time, all he wants to do is return home

As Pedro Strop enters free agency for the first time, all he wants to do is return home

The stats don't lie: Pedro Strop is one of the best relief pitchers in Cubs franchise history.

No pitcher has come close to the 120 holds Strop has notched in a Cubs uniform (Carlos Marmol is second with 83) and he also ranks sixth all time in appearances, ahead of Fergie Jenkins and Ryan Dempster.

Strop even has a better ERA (2.90) and WHIP (1.05) with the Cubs than Lee Smith (2.92, 1.25), who was just inducted into the Hall of Fame this summer. 

But at the moment, Strop won't have an opportunity to build upon those numbers as he enters free agency for the first time in his career following the final year of his $17.6 million extension he signed prior to 2017.

He hopes he'll get another chance in Chicago, repeatedly calling the Cubs clubhouse "home."

"I gotta say the Cubs are a priority [in free agency] and I'll work with them first and see if we can work something out," Strop said after the Cubs' final game of the season. "If not, then Plan B — whatever is best for the rest of my career. Right now, I just want to come back and stay home."

Anthony Rizzo is the only player who currently boasts a longer tenure with the Cubs and the team got together after the season finale in St. Louis to toast to Strop, Ben Zobrist and Joe Maddon.

Maddon's departure was already official and while it's still possible Strop and Zobrist return, the Cubs wanted to pay tribute just in case this was the end for them, too. Strop called it an emotional and "sad" moment that he may have to leave the family he built in Chicago, but maintained hope that a reunion was in the future. 

The Cubs think so highly of Strop and his impact behind the scenes (especially on younger players like Javy Baez), Theo Epstein said last fall he hopes the veteran "can be a part of this organization when he's done playing."

Don't start lining Strop up for a coaching gig or a job as a special assistant in Epstein's front office. Not yet, anyway.

Still only 34, he believes he has something left in the tank and the final month or so of 2019 backs him up. Continued issues with his hamstring dragged down his overall season numbers (4.97 ERA, 1.27 WHIP), but Strop seemed to find his rhythm again in September with a 2.00 ERA, 1.00 WHIP and 14 strikeouts in 9 innings (though much of that work came in low-leverage situations).

In summing up his season, he wished he had been able to contribute in that way earlier in the year, but felt like he proved a lot in the final month. That could be a nice sales pitch to teams in free agency.

"If I'm starting a negotiation with the Cubs, it doesn't have to be that difficult," Strop said. "They already know what I'm capable of doing when I'm right and they know this is my house here. But I still don't know what's gonna happen."

The Cubs are undergoing a complete renovation of their bullpen this winter, with veterans Strop, Steve Cishek, Brandon Kintzler and Brandon Morrow ticketed for free agency and Derek Holland and David Phelps likely to follow. 

Right now, it appears only Craig Kimbrel, Rowan Wick, Kyle Ryan and Brad Wieck are locked into relief spots for 2020, opening up a plethora of options. Kimbrel is a giant question mark after his debut season on the North Side and the other three just enjoyed breakout 2019 campaigns, so there isn't much of a track record there to trust.

There's plenty of room for Strop to come back, but will the Cubs come calling? Is it prudent to chalk up his struggles to the leg injuries and not just overall wear and tear that also saw Strop's fastball velocity drop nearly 2 full mph?

If the price is right, Strop could be a good low-risk/high-reward option for the Cubs to add some veteran depth to the bullpen. Relievers don't often become huge factors in the clubhouse chemistry of a team, but the Cubs have always fed off Strop's relentlessly upbeat attitude and brutal honesty.

Plus, he feels like he has some unfinished business with the Cubs next year.

"We had a contending team [in 2019]," he said. "Teams are getting better in our division. We gotta realize that and we gotta be honest that they're getting better. We just need to come back hungry and try to win. Just go out there, not thinking about whatever happened this year and just compete. We got the guys, we got the group. It's gonna be a really good 2020 Chicago Cubs team."