CHICAGO -- How did the Chicago Cubs make it to the next round of talks with Japanese star Shohei Ohtani, but the New York Yankees are out of the equation? It’s a question the Yankees might be pondering, while the Cubs are undoubtedly pouncing on the opportunity.
Various reports indicate that the Cubs are one of seven finalists for the 23-year-old’s services, but they’re the only team not in the American League West or National League West divisions.
An early rumor last month, at the general managers' meetings in Orlando, Florida, suggested that Ohtani preferred a West Coast team. Yankees GM Brian Cashman echoed those thoughts Sunday when explaining why his team was out of the running.
“You can’t make yourself a West Coast [team], and you can’t make yourself a small market,” Cashman said, according to the New York Post. "That doesn’t mean he will end up with some team like that, but that was some of the early indicators that the winds weren’t going to go [our] way ... But if I was a team out West and a team in a small market, I might be a little more excited."
How, exactly, does the list of finalists include the Cubs? No one knows, as teams involved in the Ohtani sweepstakes, along with his camp, are mum right now. Maybe it’s as simple as the Yankees' having a Japanese star already, in the form of Masahiro Tanaka, and Ohtani wants his own spotlight, as several have suggested, including one executive again Monday.
Cashman is the only executive who has commented extensively on the record, and his thoughts concur with those rumors from last month. It’s still a good indicator that the Cubs are probably not the favorites, but something got them into the next round.
“Theo Epstein can sell a franchise,” one longtime executive said Monday.
It’s true. Epstein is as good, if not better, at articulating a plan as anyone in the game. Perhaps the Cubs’ initial pitch, which included video testimonials from current players and perhaps their family members, convinced Ohtani’s team that the Cubs should be included in the next round of talks. Some players have been put on notice this week to be ready in case they’re needed in southern California for a face-to-face meeting with Ohtani, according to industry sources.
With only $300,000 to spend on a signing bonus, it won’t be money -- at least not initially -- that attracts Ohtani to the Cubs. Perhaps it’s the way he’ll be used, but pretending that Joe Maddon is the only manager who can get creative for the two-way star is naïve. American League teams have the flexibility of the designated hitter. Still, the prospect of Ohtani filling a void on the mound and helping out at the plate is too good to not examine.
If Ohtani were to be acquired, the Cubs would have to say goodbye to an outfielder. They are mulling over trading a core player for some pitching as is; a deal with Ohtani would fast-track that, with Ian Happ, Kyle Schwarber, Albert Almora or others on the move. At that point, the Cubs could settle for the best offer instead of holding out for a top-three starter, something they are unlikely to get unless Addison Russell or Javier Baez is part of a trade. A top-three or -four pitcher won’t be needed as desperately if Ohtani is on board.
With Ohtani in the fold, Maddon would have no issues rotating him in and out of right field as well as on the mound. Jason Heyward has no guarantee of being an everyday player anyway. To top it off, the ridiculous savings the Cubs would have in their starting rotation -- only Jon Lester would make big money -- would allow the team financial flexibility for years to come.
The Cubs have already won the primary for Ohtani. Now they have to win an open election against a slew of teams that live on the West Coast (plus the Texas Rangers). It’s unlikely, but the Cubs have come this far, so don’t count them out.