CHICAGO — If only the designated hitter rule had been implemented in the National League before 2022. That could have changed the course of the Japanese two-way star Shohei Ohtani‘s career – as well as the trajectory of the Chicago Cubs. At least that’s what the Cubs thought when they pursued him in 2017 before he signed with the Cubs Los Angeles Angels.
“It was pretty clear he wanted to do both [hitting and pitching]and DHing was the best option to do that,” Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer said at general manager meetings last week. “As good as the meeting with him went, we always knew it was going to be an uphill climb.”
The Cubs were one of them at the time, seven finalists for Ohtani’s services – and one of two not on the West Coast. At the time, Chicago was in the midst of success, having reached the NLCS three straight seasons and taking home the World Series championship in 2016.
“Things were going pretty well at that point,” Hoyer said. “I think he was fascinated.”
That was also true for the Cubs.
Ohtani, now the biggest free agent in the history of the game, is deciding where he wants to play next and the Cubs are again interested in courting him, according to sources familiar with the situation.
Ohtani is expected to win his second American League Most Valuable Player Award when the winners are announced Thursday night. Everyone knew he could pitch, but what he did on the field over the past six seasons was eye-opening — for fans and executives alike.
“There were no questions about his ability on the mound,” Hoyer recalled. “The offensive part of his game was underestimated.”
There will be plenty of competition for Ohtani this winter, but at least Chicago has the DH to offer this time. Plus, widely respected manager Craig Counsell was just hired to take over an 83-win team that narrowly missed the postseason in 2023 Jason Heyward ($21 million) and Cody Bellinger ($17.5 million), which leaves money for a huge deal. The Cubs were below the luxury tax threshold in 2023, ranking 11thTh in payroll, so exceeding it is a little less undesirable when necessary.
The time may finally be right for a Cubs-Ohtani union.
“Ohtani would literally own Wrigley Field,” one NL scout joked about his potential salary. “Chicago would definitely be his.”
What the Ohtani prosecution means for Bellinger
Bellinger was a success story in 2023. He was signed to a one-year contract by Chicago before the season and won a Silver Slugger Award and Comeback Player of the Year honors after compiling an OPS+ of 133. And he played great defense, both in center field and at first base. He accomplished what he set out to do when he came to Chicago: rebuild his value and return to free agency.
“There is widespread interest in Cody Bellinger,” his agent Scott Boras said recently. “Cody had a great experience in Chicago. He can play well anywhere. This has a lot to do with personal responsibility. It has to do with their commitment.”
The Cubs appear committed to spending this offseason, especially after signing Counsell to a five-year, $40 million contract. a record for a manager.
“I quickly saw that the organization was in great shape,” Counsell said. “Dynamism is created here.”
But while an Ohtani and Bellinger pairing would be a dream scenario for fans, it’s unlikely. Multiple sources believe the Cubs are more likely to sign Ohtani than bring Bellinger back with his own big contract.
“I think Bellinger is as good as dead,” a source familiar with the situation said earlier in the offseason.
Circumstances and history are two reasons why the Cubs and Bellinger may not get back together. First, there will likely be teams that aren’t in the mix for Ohtani and are desperate for the next best left-handed bat available. The New York Yankees were interested in Bellinger at the trade deadline and will be again, according to sources familiar with their deals. The Toronto Blue Jays A dangerous left-hander was also missing. The San Francisco Giants are also among Bellinger’s admirers.
Under Hoyer and owner Tom Ricketts, the Cubs were measured in their handling of free agents. Ohtani aside, the organization isn’t the type to engage in bidding wars. But that won’t be the case for Bellinger, according to sources familiar with the situation.
Another side of the story concerns Boras and Ricketts personally. They don’t have the kind of relationship where the agent can pick up the phone and negotiate with the owner like Boras has in other situations.
That means: The Cubs haven’t signed a multi-year contract with a Boras customer in a very long time. This includes players on the free agent market, those they drafted, and those who won an MVP (Kris Bryant) or those they traded for who won a Cy Young Award (Jake Arrieta). They’ve all moved on. Bellinger probably will too.
Boras was asked if the timing of a Bellinger deal was related to Ohtani being represented by another agency.
“Bellinger is a position player, Shohei is a DH, so those demand platforms are very different,” Boras said. “Teams approaching Cody want him to play on the field every day. They might be aiming for a DH.” And Cody, but hers [paths] For this reason, do not cross the border.”
Ohtani isn’t the only missing piece
Regardless of whether Ohtani becomes a Cub or not, the team will need to fill other holes, potentially including at first and third base and starting pitching. If necessary, they can dip into their farm system for a trade as it is stronger than ever. Kiley McDaniel ranks second in ESPN’s latest analysis.
The team also has powerful infielders/outfielders Christopher Morel He played first base during winter ball and tried to find a home for him around the diamond. If the New York Mets should do Pete Alonso The Cubs, who are available for a trade, could be in consideration with Morel as a key player in return, according to sources familiar with their thinking.
But Alonso recently changed agents to Boras – and this is also the case San Diego Padres outfielder Juan Soto‘s agent. Both players will be free agents after 2024, and while a trade-and-sign deal sounds sensible for either player, it is unlikely.
“I don’t think any player wants to play in an organization they don’t know,” Boras said. “This is the normal course.”
In other words, it’s more than likely for Alonso and Soto to play out the year and then test the free agent waters – unless they re-sign with their current teams. New Mets president David Stearns also said he expects Alonso to be his first baseman on Opening Day – although a lot could change between now and then.
At third base, the Cubs reunited with a veteran Jeimer Candelario seems unlikely, according to a source familiar with the situation. Interest in Candelario is likely to be high after a career year, with Toronto and his old team Washington already showing some promise. Former second baseman Nick Madrigal He played admirably at third for the Cubs when he was healthy last season, but he’s probably not an everyday option there going forward.
According to sources familiar with the situation, the Cubs are also dealing with Japanese pitchers Yoshinobu Yamamoto and Shota Imanaga – the latter of whom has already spent time in Chicago. They also have their eye on the Milwaukee starter Corbin Burnes, in case the Brewers start giving in — and Milwaukee is ready to trade with the team that just stole its manager. The Cubs would like to acquire a starter Marcus Stroman recently opted out of his contract — even though young pitching is a sudden strength for the organization. According to McDaniel, minor league righty Cade Horton could be the top pitching prospect in baseball next year.
But the big fish is still Ohtani. Like all of his previous suitors, the Cubs are keeping an eye on their strategy.
“It didn’t surprise me in the end, he picked an AL team,” Hoyer said of the 2017 sweepstakes, “but I wish we could go back in time and try again.”
Sometimes second chances don’t come along, but six years after the first attempt to woo him, the Cubs are getting another chance.