Call me Ismael Valdez.
In a recent feature for NBC Sports Chicago, David Kaplan wrote that Shohei Ohtani is Theo Epstein’s white whale. That’s not so much because Captain Epstein has been wantonly pursuing this particular cetacean for ages, but that Ohtani is the very incarnation of the Cubs’ desires. I mean, he’s the cost-controlled pitcher they so desperately desire and he’s also the kind of bat they’ve built their franchise around.
The only issue is that they may not have a big enough boat, and I’m not talking about their paltry international bonus or even mixing pop culture metaphors. Although I suppose a little Jaws reference is fitting, given the armada that went out in search of the antagonist white shark in the film. Literally every MLB team — even the Reds think they could have a shot, which, okay — is interested in landing this big fish (or mammal, depending on which reference you’re following at this point), making the waters choppy.
That’s certainly the case when it comes to the experts’ predictions, inasmuch as you can really call them that. Shrouded in mystery more befitting the denizen of a mythical island, it seems no one has really been able to shine a light on the superstar from the Land of the Rising Sun. The contents of a recently-circulated questionnaire may have helped, but now it’s a matter of everyone trying to discern Ohtani’s desires.
MLB.com’s Jon Morosi lists the Yankees and Dodgers — the latter of whom it’s important to note face the same $300,000 restriction as the Cubs — as the favorites to land Ohtani, largely based on their advantages with cultural assimilation. Both cities also offer ample opportunities for the would-be superstar to further globalize his brand, though it’s not like he’ll somehow be overlooked in a smaller market.
Next up are the Rangers, who’ve apparently invested “untold sums of money” developing a grassroots presence in Japan. I suppose it’s probably more like laying down sod, but you get the point. They were after Ohtani when he nearly jumped to MLB out of high school and they landed Yu Darvish, who is one of Ohtani’s idols. Of course, they’re also the team that traded Darvish away and that has no intention of re-signing him.
The Mariners are among the favorites as well, to the extent that GM Jerry DiPoto stated on the record that they’re all-in on an all-out recruiting effort. West Coast team, Ichiro, you know the drill. SB Nation’s Grant Brisbee believes Seattle’s various positives make them the favorite to land Ohtani, though he makes it very clear that he’s really got no idea how it’ll all play out.
Then you’ve got the Cubs, a team everyone agrees has some of the shorter odds in the Ohtani sweepstakes. Their recent success and the likelihood that they can maintain it are no doubt appealing, as are their state-of-the-art amenities (to say nothing of recent renovations that have replaced 93 percent of the urine residue from the century-old Wrigley concrete). They’ve got a young team and a manager who would certainly be able to find room for Ohtani in both the rotation and the lineup. And make no mistake, the Cubs do believe he can play both ways at the major league level.
What a coup that would be for Epstein and Jed Hoyer, bringing in the perfect amalgam of what they’ve built around and what they’ve striven somewhat fruitlessly to develop or acquire. Sure, there’s Jose Quintana, but they had to sacrifice a helluva lot to land him. Ohtani is, for all intents and purposes, free; his bonus and salary make him roughly equivalent to a late fifth round pick. He’s 75 inches of serendipity whose 100 mph fastball is exceeded only by the exit velocities of his home runs.
And after what has felt like an interminable period of speculation, we’re about to start getting some answers as to where Ohtani will end up. He arrived at LAX Wednesday evening and it’s expected that he’ll be posted Friday, assuming MLB owners indeed ratify the tentative agreement between their league and NPB. With only 21 days to determine his new team from that point, and with the Winter Meetings kicking off on December 10 in Orlando, you can expect an absolute maelstrom of activity over the next few weeks.
Of all the legitimate reasons and the various baseball-centric rationale I’ve used, there’s another facet to this that weighs heavily in the Cubs’ favor. And that is the fact that when Epstein and Hoyer set their minds on something, they almost always get it done. From world championships to coveted free agents, they have routinely hit the bullseye on even the most far-fetched targets.
Jon Lester stands out as the most obvious of these as far as players are concerned, but we can’t forget about the man the Cubs placed in a fictional future lineup behind the southpaw when pitching him. While Jason Heyward hasn’t panned out as everyone had hoped, it’s impossible to discount the fact that he was the most sought-after position player in his free-agent class. The Cubs had incredibly stiff competition from at least the Cardinals and the Nationals in that race and they got their man, for better or worse.
We could go back further to the Red Sox and Daisuke (Dice-K) Matsuzaka, but that was back in the Wild West of sealed bids in which money alone determined the winner. Still, the fact that Boston was willing to shell out what was then an exorbitant sum in order to secure the pitching phenom says something about how Epstein operates.
With money seemingly irrelevant in this particular matter, I have this (possibly irrational) belief that the Cubs will be able to convey their urgency to Ohtani in a way that he can really dig. I’m not talking about a creepy, stalker-y kind of dependency, but more the sense that the they can make Ohtani see that he is key to the next step in their evolution. Along with Bryce Harper, of course.
Regardless of how this pans out, you, loyal reader, will be the real winner. I say that because you’ll either a) be able to buy a Cubs shirsey with OHTANI on the back, or b) I will not be writing about him nearly as often.