Ohtani, 23, requested explanations in English and Japanese, if possible, through his agent Nez Balelo. Ohtani is asking teams to identify his strengths and weaknesses as both a pitcher and a hitter, as well as descriptions of many factors including teams’ player development and medical training systems, their facilities at the Major and Minor League levels and why their organization would be one that would make Ohtani feel comfortable.
This is going to be a ton of fun to see what responses might be leaked, if at all, and also to try to do this entire blog via phone, which is something I rarely do. But at this point, my phone is probably more powerful than any of the computers in my house. Anyway, I digress. Back to Ohtani.
In the Black Friday blog, I did say that the Cubs didn’t have the financial muscle to outbid other teams outright due to international free agency rules. Thankfully, the questionnaire parameters seem to level the playing field as it is explicitly stated that financial terms should not be included. This may be to prevent any suspicion on MLB’s part regarding under the table deals, but may also speak to how little Ohtani cares about salary at this time. If he stays healthy and performs to potential, he will get paid anyway.
Ohtani can only play for one team, and as a National League club, the Cubs have a disadvantage due to not being able to hide Ohtani at the designated hitter position on non-pitching days. The Cubs will not be able to get around this, and will be transparent in answering this question for Ohtani and his agent. We don’t know the specifics of the questionnaire until someone either leaks it or the agent distributes it to the media. But the basics are known, and that’s what we will play with.
Strengths and Weaknesses
I know only what I have read and watched in highlights, but this part is simple. Ohtani is a very good pitcher and hitter. At least, he has shown himself to be so in Japan, which is a very strong league. He’s done this at a young age, so young in fact that he’s still beholden to the hard international spending restrictions. I imagine the Cubs will talk about the stuff we know, and perhaps explain via their scouting how well he moves on the field, his beginning, and perhaps even his outfield defense since he stands there every now and then.
On the flip side, Ohtani has been slowed by a few injuries in the past season, so that is the only major weakness I can detect with my amateur scouting eye. I also think most teams may be more enamored with his arm than his bat, although I doubt anyone, including the Cubs, will say that outright as that could be construed as an insult.
Player Development and Training
The Cubs have some of the best and most exciting young players currently on the MLB squad, and have traded the bulk of their upper level talent for other valuable pieces. I think they do have to be honest, as both Epstein and Hoyer have, about their issues in developing impact pitching in house. However, the Cubs can talk about their lower level pitching prospects, who are very good and very promising, as well as what they were able to do for pitchers like Jeff Samardzija, Jake Arrieta, Kyle Hendricks, and their top relievers as well.
As for training, the Cubs have had very few devastating injuries over the past few years, and this may be due to their improved home clubhouse as well as their staff. Other than Kyle Schwarber’s season ending knee injury in 2016 (he came back with a vengeance for the World Series) and Hendricks’ extended absence with the hand issue this season, most guys were able to play as they wished. Even when there should have been a terrible blow because of leg injuries like with Willson Contreras, he was still back on the early side rather than the late side, and I think Ohtani and other free agents should feel confident with the depth on the team that nobody will rush them back from injury.
This one should be easy. Chicago has some of the best hospitals in the country within minutes of Wrigley Field. The stadium itself is undergoing a miraculous makeover, and the home clubhouse is the envy of the division, if not the entire league. In Arizona, Sloan Park is the crown jewel of the Cactus League, and the training facilities there are top notch.
While Chicago has its share of big city issues, Ohtani should have no problem finding a good neighborhood to live in. There are plenty of diverse food options. There are Asian and Asian-American fans who would snatch up his jerseys, and no matter where he went, he would receive the attention and glamour he deserves.
The team is composed of some of the coolest and most popular players in the majors, and the manager is an expert at maintaining clubhouse chemistry and keeping things fresh and fun. It certainly seemed to work just fine for fellow Japanese player Koji Uehara, but I guess the Cubs may have to be honest about the casual racism that was directed at former players like Kosuke Fukudome. Overall, the experience that we’ve observed on Cubs Twitter and Instagram suggests that everyone gets along well and has fun. That has to count for something.
Without the DH and only a handful of interleague games in American League parks, the Cubs will have to be open about needing to be creative with Ohtani’s playing time and usage. He would obviously start and pitch every five days, but his bat would need to be available other days without taking too many plate appearances away from other capable starters. He could obviously pinch hit, but it may be difficult to slot him in outfield over defensive guys like Albert Almora, versatile players like Ian Happ, or Kyle Schwarber’s power bat.
With Joe Maddon being so creative, I can envision Ohtani allowing the manager to sneak in extra days off for his players without losing too much on offense if Ohtani is willing to be an outfielder. As a corner guy in Japan, Ohtani seems capable of making most plays, but I admit I’ve never seen him on defense so would have to rely on someone else’s scouting reports. (UPDATE: It seems the Cubs think he can play outfield adequately.)
In addition to being a starting outfielder to get the bat into the lineup, I could see the Cubs using Ohtani to save a pitcher in situations where a specialist was needed. Ohtani could start, of course, but then shift to the outfield to allow a reliever to come in before either remaining in the outfield for the rest of the game, or returning to the mound to finish out his day. This would be a great way to save either another bench bat or a pitcher to be used for later.
The Cubs are a great organization that is poised to get to the playoffs and possibly win again over the next few years. They have as much ammunition as any other team to land Ohtani. Let’s hope they take the shot and make it a good one.