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.”

Podcast: Albert Almora Jr. dishes on his role and the Cubs’ unsung hero that keeps things loose behind the scenes

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USA TODAY

Podcast: Albert Almora Jr. dishes on his role and the Cubs’ unsung hero that keeps things loose behind the scenes

Albert Almora Jr. joins Kelly Crull on the Cubs Talk Podcast to weigh in on a variety of topics, including his budding bromance with rumored Cubs target Manny Machado, his expanded role and how he spends his time off away from the ballpark.

Plus, Almora has a surprise pick for the organization’s unsung hero, stating the Cubs would’ve never won the World Series without this guy.

Listen to the full Cubs Talk Podcast right here:

How Ian Happ got his groove back at the plate

How Ian Happ got his groove back at the plate

There's a legit case to be made that Ian Happ has been the Cubs' second-best hitter in 2018.

Yes, really.

Happ ranks second on the Cubs in OPS (.895), behind only Kris Bryant (.995) among regulars, though a recent hot streak has buoyed that overall bottom line for Happ.

Still, it's been a pretty incredible hot streak and it's propelled Happ back to where he began the season — at the top of the Cubs order. 

Happ has walked 10 times in the last 6 games and hammered out 3 homers in that span, including one on top of the Schwarboard in right field as a pinch-hitter Tuesday night.

Even more jaw-dropping: He's only struck out 5 times in the last 9 games after a dreadful start to the season in that regard.

"It was just a matter of time until things clicked a little bit," Happ said. "That's why we play 162 games and it's a game of adjustments. At the end of the day, it all evens out.

"Look at the back of Tony [Rizzo's] baseball card — it's the same thing every single year. That's how this thing goes. You're gonna have your ups and your downs and I'm just trying to be as consistent as I can. If I can level it out a little bit and be more consistent over a period of time, that'll be better for our team."

So yes, Happ is on the upswing right now and he'll inevitably have more slumps where he strikes out too much and looks lost at the plate.

Such is life for a 23-year-old who is still a week away from his 162nd career MLB game.

The league had adjusted to Happ and he had to adjust back, which he'd been working hard doing behind the scenes.

"I just try to get him to primarily slow things down," Joe Maddon said. "Try to get him back into left-center. And I did not want to heap a whole lot of at-bats on him. When you're not going good, if you heap too many at-bats on somebody, all of a sudden, that's really hard to dig out of that hole.

"So a lot of conversations — a lot of conversations — but nothing complicated. I like to go the simple side of things. I wanted him to try not to lift the ball intentionally, really organize his strike zone."

Maddon believes Happ had lost sight of his strike zone organization, chasing too many pitches out of the zone — particularly the high fastball.

Now, the Cubs manager sees Happ using his hands more and less of his arms in his swing, working a more precise, compact path to the ball.

The Happ experiment at leadoff was a disaster to begin the year — .186 AVG, .573 OPS and 22 strikeouts in 10 starts there — but all the same tools and rationale exist for why Maddon likes the switch-hitting utiliy player in that spot.

And that's why Happ was leading off Wednesday with both Ben Zobrist and Albert Almora Jr. getting the night off.

"We're gonna find out [if he can stick at leadoff]," Maddon said. "I just thought he's looked better. He's coming off a nice streak on the road trip. [Tuesday night], pinch-hitting. I know the home run's great and of course that's nice.

"But how he got to the pitch that he hit out, to me, was the important thing. Got the two strikes, took the two borderline pitches and then all of a sudden, [the pitcher] came in with a little bit more and he didn't miss it.

"That's the big thing about hitting well, too — when you see your pitch, you don't either take it or foul it off. You don't miss it. He didn't miss it."