There’s little more indicative of the shroud of mystery hiding Shohei Otani from the Western baseball world than the spelling of his surname. Depending on where you look, there may be a vestigial h shoehorned between the O and t, neither which is really either right or wrong (I stick with the shorter version because that’s what I’ve always used, but the explanation in that link is great). As more barriers to his move to MLB are removed, however, we’re getting a clearer picture of a man who has existed primarily as myth to this point.
But don’t credit Cubs GM Jed Hoyer with doing anything to illuminate either the process or progress when it comes to Otani’s courtship. In appearances on both 670 The Score and NBC Sports Chicago’s Cubs Talk podcast, Hoyer demurred when asked about the winter’s most intriguing free agent. After all, you’ve got to be quiet if you want to sneak up on a unicorn.
In addition to his tangible skills on the diamond, a player of Otani’s talent would be a huge boon because of his nominal impact on payroll. And that is a concept Hoyer can discuss in spades.
“Our goal is to be really good in ’18. But our bigger goal is to be really good during this entire window and try to make sure we have multiple bites at the apple [emphasis mine],” Hoyer told NBCSC. “Having won that World Series, it does allow you to take that perspective a little more than it might have in a city that was starved to finally break ‘The Curse.’
“I think 2018 is really important, but so is ’19 and so is ’20. That’s always been the case. But it’s easier to say that now – and easy to do that now – having won a World Series.”
Hoyer played coyer as well, referring to unnamed teams — particularly one that may or may not have been subliminally indicated — that do feel the pressure to win every single year. He’s not saying Cubs fans don’t expect 100 wins and a deep playoff run every season now, just that team execs know that maintaining a competitive team is about more than just spending big in free agency every winter.
And that’s where the real intrigue lies with Otani, one of those rare players for whom money is no object. Not only is he forgoing what would surely have been the largest international contract in history by leaving Japan a couple years early, but most teams have already blown so much of their bonus pool money that Otani can’t even max out his pay under current rules.
We’ve noted it here before, but a max bonus of approximately $3.5 million from the Rangers probably won’t sway Otani’s decision. The $300,000 the Cubs can offer is significantly lower, but you’re kidding yourself if you think that’s where a bulk of his earnings will come from. Rather than an under-the-table handshake deal on a future extension — which is a very real issue for MLB — I’m speaking of the endorsements this guy will land in spades if he can perform even close to the hype.
While the Yankees are always among the favorites for all the big names, this isn’t a situation like the one in which they blew away the field in wooing Masahiro Tanaka (or Boston with Daisuke Matsuzaka or Texas with Yu Darvish). Nor do the Bronx Bombers have an appreciable advantage over other teams in terms of their outlook. They’re obviously very good and have an excellent core, they’re just not head and shoulders above everyone else.
So does that help the Cubs?
Maybe, but they lost a big selling point of their own when the ball from that 30th in Game 7 out nestled into the back of Anthony Rizzo’s mitt. If that sounds crazy, think about the intrinsic value of winning a title in Chicago. That’s part of what lured Jon Lester, after all. And while Otani is clearly in a very different position from the veteran lefty, the idea of being part of something that big might appeal to his desire to test himself in MLB rather than just trying to cash in down the road.
At the same time, the Cubs don’t have the crippling disadvantage of an outdated, outmoded clubhouse and other subpar facilities. From Sloan Park to the Park and Wrigley and everything in between, the Ricketts family has ensured that no free agent will knock the Cubs because of where they prepare and play.
Then you look at the Cubs’ roster, which is chock full ‘o young stars that figure to be together for the next several years. That’s probably enticing. Then again, those young stars don’t leave a lot of playing time for a guy who has expressed a desire to both hit and play the outfield. But Joe Maddon has shown a deft hand when it comes to finding playing time in a crowded outfield and Jon Jay’s departure opens up plenty of room for the lefty-batting Otani.
What it’s really going to come down to, at least as I see it, is selling Otani on Chicago on the whole and the Cubs in particular. Even with that elusive World Series championship out of the way, there’s still quite a bit of allure in trying to win another while wearing blue pinstripes. Royal blue, not navy, though I suppose getting the Yankees back to the Fall Classic could be a motivating factor.
Even with all I’ve written and read about Otani, it’d be far too presumptuous of me to make proclamations as to what will or won’t motivate him. That said, something tells me he’s not going to be swayed by glitz and glamour. And I think that’s actually a very good thing for the Cubs, though it might be even better for a team like the Mariners.
The Cubs have been in on Ohtani for quite some time now and you can bet that they’re going to present a compelling case for why he should come to Chicago. They’ll push the city and their upgraded facilities, their wide-open competitive window, and the ability to play in front of rabid packed houses even during weekday afternoons against cellar-dwelling opponents. And then they’ll have to hope he buys in.
When it’s all said and done, I really don’t have a good idea of where Shohei Otani will end up. I don’t even want to hazard a guess because it’s still so wide open. But I absolutely believe the Cubs are very much in the running to land him and I don’t think the Yankees, or any other team, has significantly better odds.