The most curious entry on Shohei Ohtani’s list of seven finalists is the San Diego Padres. Given the club’s relatively diminutive market and general lack of competitiveness over the last decade, the Padres don’t immediately profile as a destination for a player of Ohtani’s magnitude.
But the Padres aren’t the only outlier. There’s another. If not quite as unexpected as the Padres, the Cubs certainly represent the second-most surprising team on Ohtani’s list.
The Cubs have the market. They also have a recent track record of success and the roster to compete in the future. They represent a geographic outlier among Ohtani’s remaining suitors, though. Of those seven final clubs, the Cubs are located in the eastern-most and coldest-climate city. For a player who seems to have a strong preference for playing on the West Coast and in ideal weather conditions, Chicago is a curious choice.
Ohtani eliminated every other NL East, AL East, NL Central, and AL Central club, en route to selecting his final seven teams. That he retained the Cubs must mean that he really likes something about the team apart from geography and market size. In other words, he really likes something about the Cubs that their decision-makers within the organization can control or sell.
So how did the Cubs get this far? Well, no one really knows outside the Ohtani camp at the moment. But ESPN’s Jesse Rogers has some ideas.
“[Theo] Epstein can sell a franchise,” one longtime executive said Monday.
It’s true. Epstein is as good, if not better, at articulating a plan as anyone in the game. Perhaps the Cubs’ initial pitch, which included video testimonials from current players and perhaps their family members, convinced Ohtani’s team that the Cubs should be included in the next round of talks. Some players have been put on notice this week to be ready in case they’re needed in southern California for a face-to-face meeting with Ohtani, according to industry sources.
Chicago might have some other under-the-radar advantages, as well.
For starters, there’s manager Joe Maddon. If Ohtani lands with an NL club, he could be used more creatively when he’s not starting. If a team really wanted to be creative with him, they could use him, say, as a super reliever who enters the game from a corner position. And Maddon’s reputation is as one of the more forward-thinking, creative managers in the game.
With Ohtani in the fold, Maddon would have no issues rotating him in and out of right field as well as on the mound. Jason Heyward has no guarantee of being an everyday player anyway.
Even if Maddon’s reputation is overblown or the field has caught up to the Cubs’ manager in terms of ingenuity, Maddon is also known for creating ideal clubhouse environments — a point this author has not only explored but experienced. If a manager and his well-regarded pitching coach Jim Hickey qualify as important considerations for Ohtani in terms of development and environment, then that could be an edge that was underemphasized in the public conversation when he released his questionnaire.
“He has a talent that most organizations search for relentlessly,” departing starter Alex Cobb said. “He will have a great time being a free agent.”
“Hick was the best pitching coach I have ever been around,” Jake Odorizzi said. “He helped me grow a lot as a pitcher over the time I was fortunate to work with him. So a lot of the pitcher I am today is because of him and the work he put in with me. … I know wherever he goes next that team will be getting a great leader to their pitching staff.”
Competitiveness probably doesn’t hurt, either: the Cubs are the most recent champions included on Ohtani’s list and enter the 2018 season as division favorites with a young position-player core. Epstein can sell Ohtani as being a missing piece to putting together a super team.
But for a player who seems quite concerned with geography, there’s one considerable geographical advantage on which Epstein could sell Ohtani: because of their location, only the Pirates typically rival the Cubs in shortest distance traveled per season.
The difference in travel miles between the Cubs and many of West Coast teams is almost a round trip around the Earth. (Our planet’s circumference is 24,900 miles.) For a player who’ll attempt to become a two-way star and who’s unfamiliar with MLB travel, what seems like a luxury could be a consideration. Seattle, thought to be a strong contender, has a grueling travel schedule. Consider Chris Ford’s mileage estimates :
|Rank||Team||Miles flown in 2017|
|16||New York Mets||32311|
|20||New York Yankees||28359|
|21||Chicago White Sox||28336|
So the Cubs have a geographic edge, after all.
Epstein can sell and recruit. Travel and recovery and maintenance, meanwhile, are perhaps items of great interest to Ohtani.
The Cubs are an outlying finalist. (What Ohtani should really do to drive interest is to eliminate one team every day.)
They, and the Rangers, are the only two teams not on the West Coast that are still in the running. They are still in consideration for reasons other than geography. That should have our attention.