A Shohei Ohtani Trade is Possible, Do Cubs Make Sense?

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Shohei Ohtani “Could Be Traded” at the Deadline

Chicago Cubs

Hoo boy. Jeff Passan dropped a doozy on us this morning, even if it would be the general expectation about almost any other superstar player.

According to the well-sourced ESPN insider, the two-way, international superstar Shohei Ohtani, who will be a free agent at the end of the season, could very well be traded at the 2023 MLB Trade Deadline. And I, Michael Cerami, think the Cubs *COULD* make as much sense as any team out there.

But before we get into the Chicago angle, here’s what Passan had to say this morning on Get Up:

“There’s one number that we need to be looking at when it comes to Shohei Ohtani’s future, and that is the Los Angeles Angels’ record, because as long as the Angels are in contention, as long as the Angels have hope for a playoff spot, Shohei Ohtani’s probably not going to be traded at the deadline this year. But if the Angels fall out of contention, and if it’s just more of the same as it’s been over the last five years that he’s been there, he could be traded, and he will definitely leave.”

Rumors of a Shohei Ohtani trade have been circling for about a year and a half, though the story there was a little complicated. The Angels, in a perpetual state of mediocrity, were fielding interest in Ohtani at the last trade deadline. But their efforts to sell the team (which have since halted) threw a wrench in those plans over the offseason.

But with less than a season to go until he reaches free agency – and an expectation he will not be extending – an Ohtani trade is reportedly back on the menu, so long as the Angels are out of contention come July.

For what it’s worth, the Angels (9-9) are currently playing .500 baseball and have a 36.9% shot at reaching the playoffs according to FanGraphs. The Angels becoming sellers in July is hardly a guarantee. It’s maybe not even likely!

But let’s say, for the sake of discussion, the Angels will be dealing Ohtani at the deadline. In a world where that is true, and where the Cubs keep up their current winning ways for two and a half more months – also hardly a guarantee! – I want to talk about the Cubs as buyers at the trade deadline.

No individual team in that situation is a lock to get a guy in trade, but, upon reflection, I could see the Cubs as among the teams that make a lot of sense if they feel sufficiently competitive.

Why do I think the Cubs make so much sense? Four reasons.

1. The Cubs Have the Pieces to Get Ohtani

I’m putting this reason first, because I anticipate it might be the most controversial. But stay with me.

Shohei Ohtani is an *incredible* talent. A perennial MVP candidate, whose impact is probably not even fully appreciated by his biggest supporters. But you always have to keep context in mind: any team trading for him will receive just under a half a season of control — a ‘rental’ — at a relatively large salary (he makes $30M this season).

So no matter how good he is, the control and cost will limit the return. That would be true for any player in a trade, even the literal most valuable player on the planet. Don’t get me wrong, Ohtani will still probably still set a record for the priciest rental deal of all-time. But it’s still going to be a vastly lesser return than, say, the Padres gave up for 3.5 seasons of Juan Soto last July.

Super elite prospects (top 5 or top 10 types in all of baseball) NEVER get traded for rentals. Hasn’t happened. Doesn’t happen. I’m not sure I see that changing in Ohtani’s case, especially given his significant salary*, and especially given what we all know it’ll cost to extend him.

That is all to say, yes, the Cubs could put together a package worthy of an Ohtani two-month rental.

The Cubs have at least 3-4 near-unanimous top-100 prospects (including PCA in the top-20 or so) and another … I don’t know 4-5 guys in that 75-200 range? And that group includes multiple center fielders, shortstops, and starting pitching prospects, many of whom are already at Double-A or higher. Things could look even rosier for the system with another couple months of development.

I don’t think you could categorically keep *anybody* off the table in any deal for Ohtani, but the Cubs front office could absolutely produce the sort of package that would get a deal done.

*(Depending on when Ohtani will be dealt, he’ll make upwards of $15 million down the stretch. Plenty of teams will consider “stretching” to make a deal happen for Ohtani, but this absolutely will impact some of the smaller market teams if the Angels aren’t willing to eat his money (and they won’t, because they won’t have to). The Cubs are right up against the first tier of the luxury tax, so acquiring Ohtani would push them over. But they have the money to make it work. There is absolutely no question about that.)

2. Necessary Rotation Depth

Throughout Ohtani’s time in Los Angeles, the Angels have accommodated his unicorn ability to play on both sides of the ball by utilizing a six-man rotation. The Cubs are one of the teams who could comfortably promise the same treatment.

As of today, their rotation is five-strong, and they have legitimate big-league depth behind them.

  1. Marcus Stroman, RHP
  2. Justin Steele, LHP
  3. Jameson Taillon, RHP
  4. Drew Smyly, LHP
  5. Hayden Wesneski, RHP

Plus: Kyle Hendricks (nearing a return), Adrian Sampson, Javier Assad, Caleb Kilian, and prospects from there.

Some teams might have to stretch a little bit to accommodate a six-man rotation for Ohtani. They would do it, of course, but the Cubs may well be even better positioned to do so than most.

3. DH and Ace Vacancies

The Chicago Cubs may employ Trey Mancini, Eric Hosmer, and Edwin Rios. And Matt Mervis, Christopher Morel, and Nelson Velázquez may all be hanging out at Triple-A. But they don’t have a DH. In fact, Cubs DHs are hitting just .213/.270/.301 (57 wRC+) this season, which is among the bottom-5 in baseball. There is no guy already in place who would become completely superfluous by the addition of Ohtani.

Even after Matt Mervis comes up, Ohtani would have easy access to DH at-bats, without displacing anyone who is otherwise performing well. Any team would want Ohtani as their DH. But not every team would get as much of an upgrade there as the Cubs.

On the “ace” side of things, since Ohtani slots in at the front of a six-man rotation, he wouldn’t be displacing anyone on the Cubs anyway. He’d just be the true ace this Cubs team could really stand to benefit from in, say, the postseason.

4. Most to Gain in the Standings

The Cubs also arguably have as much to gain by adding Ohtani this season as any team in baseball. Part of that is due to their need for an ace and the obvious vacancy at designated hitter. Yes. But the other part is their projected position in the division/playoff race.

The Cubs have outperformed our expectations to begin the season, but they are still – at best – a bubble playoff team. That means that adding someone like Ohtani could be the difference between getting into the playoffs and missing it all together. Sometimes, that can be greater motivation for an acquisition than a superstar team that is already a lock for the postseason.

So Many Caveats and Contextual Considerations

But let’s also be real here: every team will call the Angels if Ohtani is truly made available. Perhaps even big market teams that are not in contention, who think trading for him might increase their chances to extend him before he reaches free agency. That, and some other caveats below, apply across the board, not just to the Cubs. But they need to be laid out anyway.

  • Will the Cubs consider making a trade if Ohtani/the Angels refuse to grant even the opportunity to discuss an extension before any trade? Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe most teams will make that a prerequisite, but it only takes one GM with a comparable offer and no *need* for an exclusive negotiating window to make it happen.
  • Similarly, would the Cubs front office consider making a trade if they don’t have assurances from ownership that they will be able to SERIOUSLY pursue a new deal with Ohtani after the season? Sure, you’re paying only for the rental in trade, but implicit in giving up a huge package is that you’ll have the first crack at trying to impress a guy. Show him that life with your team and in your city can be awesome. That would be entirely fruitless if the front office already knew in advance that ownership was never going to sign off on a $500+ million deal. Not sure we have evidence yet that this ownership group is ready to go to that level for any player.
  • For what it’s worth, the Cubs do have a lot more money coming off the books this offseason, which maybe make the possibility of an extension – if it’s on the table – marginally more realistic. I tend to doubt they’d be the high bidder in free agency, but maybe an early look at Chicago – and specifics on what he’s seeking – could help get a deal done.
  • Do the Cubs have the guts to trade anybody among their best prospect group? The recent Ian Happ extension may make the Cubs more willing to deal one of their top outfield prospects, but we also know how strongly GM Jed Hoyer feels about building something long-term and sustainable. For my money, you do whatever it takes to get Ohtani and figure the rest out later, but without an extension, it is at least a very real consideration.
  • On the flip side, we do know that Ohtani reportedly did consider the Chicago Cubs when he first came over to MLB. In fact, they were the *only* non-West Coast team on his list.

The Stats

While we’re here, I may as well remind you how good Shohei Ohtani is? Last season, as a hitter, Ohtani slashed .273/.356/.519 (142 wRC+) with 34 homers and 3.8 WAR. And as a pitcher, he made 28 starts (166.0 IP) with a 2.33 ERA and 5.6 WAR.

This season, at the plate, Ohtani already has 4 home runs and an identical 142 wRC+. And as a starter, he’s got a 0.86 ERA over his first four starts (21.0 IP). The 28-year-old two-way star would massively impact any team he joins.

The Conclusion

Because (1) we don’t know if the Angels will fall out of contention early enough to trade Ohtani and (2) because almost every single team in baseball will make *at least* an exploratory call, it would be silly to say the Cubs’ odds of trading for Ohtani are actually all that good. Frankly, they’re not. But I do think it’s fair to say, for the reasons laid out above, the Cubs have as much reason and ability to get a deal done as any team out there. And since Jeff Passan is saying a deal is possible, that’s a very VERY important possibility to consider.

We will be watching the Angels (and the Cubs, of course … ) very closely over these next couple months. Maybe they could go ahead and lose a bunch of games, just to make things interesting?

Brett Taylor contributed to this post.

Author: Michael Cerami

Michael Cerami covers the Chicago Cubs, Bears, and Bulls at Bleacher Nation. You can find him on Twitter @Michael_Cerami