Cubs

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.”

Cubs trade Mike Montgomery to Royals for catcher Martin Maldonado

Cubs trade Mike Montgomery to Royals for catcher Martin Maldonado

It’s not a blockbuster move, but the Cubs have reportedly made a trade with more than two weeks until the trade deadline.

Theo Epstein confirmed previous reports after the game that the Cubs traded left-handed pitcher Mike Montgomery to the Kansas City Royals for catcher Martin Maldonado. Epstein added that Willson Contreras is heading to the 10-day IL with a strain in the arch of his foot, but he didn’t expect Contreras to be out much longer than those 10 days.

Montgomery, 30, joined the Cubs in the middle of the 2016 season, but struggled this season. He had a 5.67 ERA with 18 strikeouts and 13 walks in 27 innings this season.

Maldonado, 32, was hitting .224/.288/.359 with the Royals. Maldonado can fill in at catcher with Victor Caratini while Contreras is out.

Jason Heyward getting back to 'who he's supposed to be' in Cubs lineup

Jason Heyward getting back to 'who he's supposed to be' in Cubs lineup

This is the Jason Heyward the Cubs thought they were getting when they signed him to an eight-year deal in December 2015.

Back then, the Cubs believed Heyward had more power to tap into from his 6-foot-5, 240-pound, linebacker-esque frame. 

It didn't play out that way initially, with Heyward hitting only 26 homers to go along with a .367 slugging percentage and .688 OPS in his first three seasons in a Cubs uniform.

But all that has changed this year.

Heyward is on pace for 26 homers in 2019 — which would equal that three-year total — and his 71 RBI pace would be his highest since 2012, when he drove in 82 runs.

The 29-year-old hit his 15th homer of the season Sunday and it marks the first time he's eclipsed the 15-homer threshold since that same 2012 season, when he hit 27 dingers as a 22-year-old with the Atlanta Braves.

The power is the area that jumps off the page right now about the new and improved Heyward, but that carries with it a grain of salt that must be taken with everybody's longball total in the game right now. But his walk rate (11.6 percent) is the second-best mark of his career to only his rookie season in 2010. He's also pulling the ball less than he ever has and utilizing the middle of the field more while his hard and soft contact rates are far and away better than they've ever been in a Cubs uniform. 

All told, this is not the same hitter Cubs fans saw in the first three years of Heyward's megadeal.

"He's set up a little bit differently," Joe Maddon said. "Right now, his confidence is soaring. That ball was properly struck [Sunday afternoon] and he's been doing that often — even his basehits.

"... He's set up a little bit differently, but honestly, I think it's a confidence thing right now. He's feeling so good about himself. He's on the barrel more. I mean that's obvious. You don't see the ball off the weaker part of the bat nearly as often as we've seen in the past. I think that's the primary difference — the ball's off the barrel. 

"His hands are really alive. I love that the ball's still line to line, but the power is still showing up. I think that's exactly who he's supposed to be."

Sunday's homer was the game-winning hit for the Cubs and Heyward put his team in front once again Monday night with an RBI groundout to plate Kris Bryant in the fourth inning before a bullpen/defensive meltdown in the seventh inning. Oh yeah, and he got the game-winning knock in the bottom of the eighth inning Friday immediately after the Cubs gave the lead right back to the Pirates in the pivotal first game coming out of the All-Star Break.

He's been a difference-maker in this Cubs lineup all year, even as they search for more consistency and steady production. 

Heyward has gone from a guy who was on the bench in some of the most important games in the 2016-17 postseason because of his offensive issues to an integral part of this team's run production.

He's shown flashes of this in the past, including a month or so in the early part of last summer where he got really hot. But this has been sustained offensive production. In every month but May (when he batted .186 with a .618 OPS), Heyward has hit over .300 with an OPS well above league average, including a .968 mark in June and .992 in April.

But right now, he's not getting into all that. He's just trying to ride the wave of a long season.

"I don't try to break it down at all, honestly," Heyward said. "Just keep it simple and just stay in tune to what I got going on — first at-bat or whatever. It is kinda simple when you just look at it — not dwell on the negative, don't get too deep on that. 'Cause you're gonna fail. Just kinda choose how you want that to happen and make the best."