As the bidding gets serious this week for Japanese pitching-hitting sensation Shohei Ohtani, the Cubs remain the long shot in a field that has narrowed to seven contenders.
Ohtani’s representatives have planned meetings this week in Los Angeles with the Dodgers, Angels, Padres, Mariners, Giants, Rangers and … Cubs.
Despite suggesting the 23-year-old — tabbed the “Babe Ruth of Japan” — prefers a small-market team on the West Coast, the Cubs somehow made the cut.
And because of Theo Epstein’s skills in persuading top talent to consider Chicago, the Cubs must be viewed as serious contenders. As has been noted, the Cubs have only about $300,000 to offer in international bonus money because they overspent their allotment last year.
That could be a stumbling block, but they also boast a manager who not only would be willing to grant Ohtani’s wish to hit on the days he’s not pitching, they can honestly say Joe Maddon craves the opportunity to showcase that kind of talent — Cubs fans can just imagine the double-switch fun Maddon would have on a regular basis.
Ohtani has a fastball that consistently touches 100 mph and a major-league quality split. Scouting reports on his slider and curveball show he still needs work. Some scouts have him slotted as a solid No. 3 starter, with potential to be a No. 1 or No. 2. That makes him especially attractive to the Cubs.
At the plate, he is seen as an above-average hitter who strikes out a lot. On the mound, he might live up to the Babe Ruth comparison. At the plate, he’s not quite there.
Among the final seven teams to make the cut, it’s hard to imagine any other managers outside of Maddon and the Dodgers’ Dave Roberts giving Ohtani the kind of flexibility he is seeking.
One red flag as Cubs fans get caught up in Ohtani Mania: He has shown an unwillingness to play in a big market — imagine crazy Cubs fans at Wrigley Field — and cold weather. The Yankees were poised to make the biggest push for Ohtani, but they were quickly shot down — resulting in a swift backlash in New York.
Still, Epstein performs well in these auditions. He has plenty of selling points in Chicago. Is this the Cubs’ biggest need? No, though they do need to bolster a rotation that will be without Jake Arrieta and likely John Lackey.
Epstein’s biggest need is finding bullpen help next week at the winter meetings and solving his puzzle in the leadoff spot. He has key trading chips in a pair of designated hitters — Kyle Schwarber and Ian Happ.
But Ohtani will be a nice warm-up act before the winter meetings.