Is Joe Maddon the Cubs’ secret weapon in Shohei Ohtani sweepstakes?

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Ohtani

Enough with the criticism of Joe Maddon.

The manager Cubs fans love to rail against when it comes to how he uses pitchers could be the key to landing the most coveted one on the free agent market.

If having the successful Maddon in the fold three years ago was a factor in Jon Lester’s free agent decision, his importance in the Shohei Ohtani sweepstakes this week is immeasurable.

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Ohtani, the so-called Babe Ruth of Japan with a 100-mph fastball from the right side and power bat from the left, surprisingly selected the Cubs among seven teams for meetings this week before making his final decision – possibly before Monday’s start of the Winter Meetings in Orlando, Fla.

The Cubs are one of the three teams on the list with the minimum $300,000 to offer as a signing bonus because of overspending international bonus-pool allotments last year (also the Dodgers and Padres).

The Cubs also are the only team on his list east of the Mississippi River and one of the two big-media-market teams on his finalist list – after Ohtani told others he preferred the West Coast and a smaller market.

Even Ohtani’s desire to be in the lineup as a hitter on the days he doesn’t pitch worked against the Cubs, who expected him to prioritize American League teams over NL teams.

To get this far in the process would seem to have surprised the Cubs even a month ago, with one team official joking that the team might have to move to a coast and switch to the AL to be in the running.

So how did team president Theo Epstein manage to make a transition to Chicago look as culturally seamless as Seattle or San Francisco, make the Cubs look as low-profile, lifestyle-friendly as the Padres or Angels (of Anaheim), and make $300,000 stack up against the $3.54 million the Rangers have to wave at Ohtani?

Maybe he didn’t have to.

As good as Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer have proven to be at holistic sales pitches to free agents, their manager might be their secret weapon in the fight to land the 23-year-old who already has made it clear that top dollar isn’t his top priority.

But he does want to hit. More than every fifth day. And scouts say he has big-league ability to handle the corner outfield spots – certainly as well as others on the roster the Cubs have used there.

And nobody in the majors has a manager more willing to find ways to make that happen. Maddon often has talked about wanting to experiment with that as a minor-league manager but getting shut down by the bosses.

“I’ve always been intrigued by the concept,” Maddon said during an interview on WSCR-670 last week. “I see nothing wrong with it. How do you utilize it? I think a lot of that would be in progress. You’d have an idea of what you want to do, then you’d figure out more as you do it.

“But, yeah, I definitely think it’s something that’s the wave of the future in a sense.”

The Cubs literally could afford to try it at least as an experiment, with their investment so relatively low (in addition to the bonus, his salary would be the major-league minimum of $545,000).

The 6-foot-4 Ohtani has been publicly deferential to an eventual team’s wishes on the two-way issue. But he also has been down this road before.

Coming out of high school he told teams not to bother drafting him because he didn’t plan to sign in Japan, instead expressing an intention to go to the U.S. out of high school and take the minor-league route to the majors.

But facing this resistance after drafting him, the Nippon Ham Fighters eventually persuaded him to sign in large part by promising him the chance to play in the field and hit on the days he didn’t start.

In 2016, he went 10-4 with a 1.86 ERA (11.2 strikeouts per nine innings) in 20 starts and a relief appearance, and hit .322 with 22 home runs in a career-high 382 plate appearances (he was hampered by an ankle injury in 2017).

Few seem to believe the Cubs ultimately will win the Ohtani lottery. But many also believed the Yankees were the favorites for him until they missed the first cut.

In fact, the Cubs might have been at least in the back of his mind from the start of the process, after 2016 teammate Anthony Bass – who pitched for the Rangers last year – gave him some advice more than a year ago.

“I told him, `You should come to the Cubs. They’re a good team, they won the World Series, and you can hit,’ ” Bass told Scott Miller of Bleacher Report for a lengthy profile posted last winter. “It’s hard to get anything from him when it comes to his decision and baseball. He just laughs, jokes about how he wants to be able to hit. He likes when he’s pitching to be able to contribute in another way. “He feels like he pitches better when he hits regularly. That’s what he says.”

Follow me on Twitter @GDubCub

Email: gwittenmyer@suntimes.com


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