CHICAGO — Ideally, the Chicago Cubs, along with all other suitors for Japanese sensation Shohei Ohtani, will know whether he’s part of their organization by the time the baseball world descends on Orlando this weekend for the winter meetings.
It isn’t that his addition will impact anyone’s budget — he comes at a minimal cost. It’s that acquiring him will give his new team flexibility to spend elsewhere.
Considering the Cubs’ need for starting pitching, Ohtani would check a big box for them while allowing the front office to allocate dollars in other ways. Ohtani would also impact the Cubs’ trade market.
With that in mind, let’s go through a checklist of the Cubs’ winter meetings needs, based on a scale of one to 10, with 10 being an absolute necessity.
Starting pitching: 9
With or without Ohtani, if the Cubs can leave Orlando with a legitimate starting pitcher (or check this box shortly thereafter), then they will have done their job for the week. Anything more would be gravy. Even with Ohtani in the fold, free-agent Alex Cobb would be a great addition and would give the Cubs a deep rotation. The savings on Ohtani could easily be spent on Cobb, as the Cubs have been careful about whom they go shopping for so far this winter.
Then there is Jake Arrieta. There has been no indication of whether the door on his return to the Cubs is open or closed, but agent Scott Boras is sure to give some sense of where the landscape is during his Orlando state-of-the union address regarding his clients.
The Cubs need even more depth for their rotation, but reclamation projects can come later. For now, a top-four starter should be their priority, regardless of what happens with Ohtani.
Relief pitching: 7
Some might think the bullpen should be more of a priority after a postseason meltdown, but in reality, it just needs a little retooling because the Cubs aren’t running away from their playoff goats.
Mike Montgomery, Carl Edwards Jr, Pedro Strop, Justin Grimm, Dillon Maples, Justin Wilson and newcomer Dario Alvarez are the makings of the pen, but it needs a finishing touch or two. The closer market could continue to be slow in developing, according to a source, but the Cubs can afford to be patient.
Free-agent Brandon Morrow has been linked to the Cubs for good reason. He has been trending higher as he has gotten older, culminating in his career-best 5.56 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 2017. That could translate into closer numbers, despite Morrow’s compiling only 18 career saves, including just two in the past eight years.
The point? There are options past Wade Davis, and the Cubs front office didn’t seem overly concerned about filling the void if he leaves for another team. At the same time, though, Theo Epstein has admitted how demoralizing it can be to blow leads late in games.
Trading with Ohtani in the fold: 8
It only makes sense for the Cubs to unclog their outfield a little bit if Ohtani is going to play there a few days per week. Ian Happ or Kyle Schwarber would most likely be on the move for some more pitching, though neither is likely to bring the Cubs a top arm. That’s OK because Ohtani is the pitcher the Cubs need as much as anyone on the market, and the Cubs would be trading from a position of strength that could stay strong even after a move. A deal with the New York Yankees for some middle relief help might make sense at that point.
Trading without Ohtani: 4
This is where it could get tricky for the Cubs: Do they entertain offers for shortstop Addison Russell, knowing he has had some injuries and other off-the-field issues? What exactly could they get for Schwarber or Happ if not a top-three or -four starter?
The meetings in Orlando with other teams are likely to include many permutations, but the Cubs’ actually pulling the trigger on a deal — save the Russell reasoning — still feels like a long shot.
But forget Russell for a moment. Teams like to ask for other teams’ best players when relinquishing their best starters. In the past, discussions have started and ended when rivals have mentioned Kris Bryant or Anthony Rizzo. By the time they get to Happ or Schwarber — at least coming off 2017 — the return might not be worth it.