Want a serious challenge on one of the biggest stages, in the greatest ballpark, with one of the best teams in baseball?
The pitch to Shohei Ohtani would look, in part, something like that for the Chicago Cubs, who are going to pursue him as seriously as possible, despite their IFA-induced $300,000 bonus limit. The serious challenge? How about pitching AND playing in the outfield in the National League?
That’s what Dave Kaplan has heard about the team’s intentions, writing today: “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.”
That the Cubs are seriously invested in Ohtani should be no surprise, given their organizational resources and the substantial value in a 23-year-old, 100 mph possible ace, who’d come with six years of team control. Ohtani is perfect for basically every team in baseball, but if there were such a thing as being really, really perfect, he’s really, really perfect for the Cubs.
As a pitcher.
But what about as a bat? And specifically, as an outfielder?
Saying now that they’re interested in Ohtani as an outfielder is part of the price of poker, and maybe he really does want the extreme challenge of being a completely two-way player. But it’s important to note a couple things: (1) Ohtani hasn’t played in the outfield since 2014, and last did it regularly in the NPB in 2013 … when he was 18; and (2) the Cubs have a fairly full stable of corner outfielders as it is.
That second part is not to say that you wouldn’t accommodate Ohtani’s bat if it translates as well to MLB as we think it can. Ohtani posted a 1.004 OPS in 2016 in the NPB, and then a .942 OPS this year after coming back from an ankle injury. The power is very real, and does project to translate. He’s got some long levers that’ll probably lead to holes that MLB pitchers will expose, but if he’s able to make the necessary adjustments (while, you know, pitching every fifth or sixth day), he has enough talent to be a first division regular in a corner outfield spot.
I’ll be candid: I have my doubts that he could pull it all off healthily, and still be the kind of ace-level pitcher he’s capable of being. I worry that playing both ways would give you 75% of what he could be on either side of the ball, and I think there’s a chance he’d be more valuable to a team like the Cubs as a pitcher maxing out his development and ability to 100% (while offering pinch hitting opportunities).
But let’s say you’ve gotta really convince Ohtani you can make it happen. Well, perhaps you start by acknowledging that not all the positional players will still be on the roster come Spring Training, and about two to three outfield starts per week will be available to him (not the days he pitches, obviously, and *at least* one completely off day between pitching starts). The Cubs have one of the best managers in baseball at accommodating a unique roster and the accompanying requirements of playing time and maximizing performance. You want to be put in the best position to succeed offensively? Having Joe Maddon as your manager and a great lineup around you will certainly help.
Kaplan’s piece, which is very much worth a read, indicates that the “buzz in the baseball world” is that only the Yankees, Dodgers, Cubs, Red Sox, Mariners, Rangers and Blue Jays have a real chance at landing Ohtani.
I’ve tried to keep myself realistic throughout this process, and I still want to stay there. If Ohtani is absolutely committed to being a two-way player, being able to DH is better than *having* to play in the outfield. It’s easier on the body, it doesn’t require extra all-out throws in-between starts, and doesn’t require doing that whole “becoming an effective defensive outfielder” thing.
But if the Cubs are very serious about pitching Ohtani the idea of giving him a chance to a true two-way superstar, then I would get a little more excited about the possibilities …