Shohei Ohtani is going to make someone’s offseason a sweeping success, and the Cubs hope to be the chosen team. Sure, they’ve got some disadvantages facing them. But if you count them out, then you haven’t been paying attention since the day Theo Epstein tugged on a Chicago Bears cap and boarded a flight to Pensacola, Fla., seeking to rendezvous with Joe Maddon at an RV park along the Emerald Coast.
This is an aggressive, creative bunch.
As the electrifying young pitcher the Cubs haven’t been able to draft and develop in the Epstein era, Ohtani is the perfect piece to add to a team that has ridden its core of young position players to the National League Championship Series three years in a row.
He’d look awfully good working alongside Kyle Hendricks, Jon Lester and Jose Quintana, and there’s no better manager to find him the at-bats he seeks in the outfield than Maddon.
“If he’s that freakin’ good, there’s a lot of things you could do,” Maddon said in September. “If he’s that good, it presents a lot of unique situations.”
You can be sure that the proven flexibility of Maddon and Epstein factored highly into the Cubs’ answers to the questionnaire that Ohtani recently distributed to all 30 teams.
With the designated hitter as a simplistic solution, it’s easier for American League teams to lay out a plan for how to use the two-way skills that allowed Ohtani to compile a 1.86 ERA and a 1.004 OPS in 2016. He’s been a DH in Japan, but scouts feel he can be an adequate corner outfielder.
The Cubs are also one of the 12 teams limited to a maximum bonus of $300,000 because they blew past their international signing pool in 2015-16, when they collected the likes of Jonathan Sierra, Aramis Ademan, Jose Albertos, Miguel Amaya and Kwang-Min Kwon.
But the difference between that and the top bonus available — $3.535 million from the Rangers, according to the Associated Press — is relatively small compared to the fortune Ohtani is leaving on the table by asking the Hokkaido-Nippon Ham Fighters to post him now rather than after 2019, when he’d be an unrestricted free agent.
The Cubs are further challenged by the depth of their roster, which already includes left-handed-hitting corner outfielders in Jason Heyward and Kyle Schwarber as well as switch-hitting utility men Ben Zobrist and Ian Happ, who are used largely as outfielders with Javier Baez at second base.
But here’s where it gets interesting.
Zobrist made it known he wanted to be a primary second baseman when he was in free agency after helping the Royals win the 2015 World Series. The Cubs accommodated that even though Baez was in line to be the regular second baseman.
There was a lot of speculation about a possible trade, but Epstein said it wasn’t happening.
“We’re going to continue to lean on the versatility of all the players involved,” he said. “[We’ll use] that to get some rest for guys and continue to put a good lineup out there every day and try to tailor the offense for that day’s opposing starting pitcher, as well as the defense for our starting pitcher.”
Epstein and Maddon laid out a plan where Baez could get 400-plus plate appearances by moving around the field, and that’s exactly what happened. He got 175 plate appearances at second base, 163 at third base, 86 at shortstop and another 26 as a pinch-hitter, left fielder and emergency first baseman as the Cubs won 103 games en route to a championship.
Adding Ohtani might make it more likely that the Cubs would be willing to trade Schwarber, Happ, Baez or even Addison Russell to help restock the pitching staff.
It seems likely that Epstein would have alluded to the possibility of roster shuffling in the Ohtani questionnaire. But he could also promise him 400 plate appearances in his age-23 season — more than he’s ever had in Japan — without a significant trade.
Being a starting pitcher requires recovery time. So let’s say Ohtani is available to be in the starting lineup only three times in every five-game turn through the rotation, once as a pitcher and twice in the outfield. That would give him rest immediately after his starts and on days when he throws a bullpen session.
The Cubs could project him for 75 plate appearances when he pitches, 65 as a pinch-hitter and 260-plus in the outfield. Heyward’s ability to play center allows him and the Gold Glover to share right field, although it would be cleaner to trade Schwarber and open up left field.
Having seen Daisuke Matsuzaka regress in Boston, Epstein could also propose a six-man rotation as a way to make the fit better for Ohtani. That would potentially make him available to be in the lineup four times every six games, not just three of every five, and could help Lester, Hendricks and Quintana be strong for October.
No question, October baseball will be a big part of the Cubs’ pitch. They’ve won 292 games over the past three seasons, the most in the Major Leagues, and have a .622 winning percentage since July 29, 2015.
Who wouldn’t want to be part of that?
One more thing: Maddon doesn’t automatically write his pitcher into the ninth spot on his lineup card. Why not put him in the middle of the lineup?
By Phil Rogers MLB.com