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Cubs notes: Reliving 1st Ohtani recruitment, non-tenders & more

Ryan Herrera Avatar
November 20, 2023
Los Angeles Angels designated hitter Shohei Ohtani (17) talks with Chicago Cubs right fielder Seiya Suzuki (27)

The Cubs have been tight-lipped about any interest or contact with Shohei Ohtani, arguably the biggest free agent in baseball history.

Jeff Passan of ESPN wrote earlier this week that it will be held against a team if any visits between that side and Ohtani are reported, so don’t expect that to change much. Last week at the GM Meetings in Scottsdale, Ariz. for example, Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer would not comment on any current-day questions regarding Ohtani.

But history questions about Ohtani? Hoyer was much more open to discussing that.

“We were charming?” Hoyer quipped when asked why he believed Ohtani met with the Cubs when he first joined Major League Baseball.

Really, though, Hoyer thought where the Cubs were at as an organization intrigued Ohtani. This was back after 2017, with the Cubs coming off three straight National League Championship Series appearances and only a year removed from a World Series title. With a strong core of position players and pitchers still around, the Cubs looked set for more years of competing for rings (though we know how that turned out).

“We had things rolling pretty well at that point,” Hoyer said. “It doesn’t surprise me he took a meeting with us, even though I think us and Texas were the only two teams [out of the seven finalists] that weren’t on the West Coast. That was why we were outliers, but it doesn’t surprise me given when that happened, we had it rolling at that point and I think he was intrigued.”

Of course, there were reasons why Ohtani didn’t end up moving to Chicago. Unlike the Angels, Dodgers, Padres, Giants and Mariners, the Cubs are not on the West Coast, and geography seemed to play a part in the initial decision.

But one big disadvantage Hoyer pointed to was the fact that the NL still didn’t have the designated hitter. Ohtani is a two-way superstar, but outside of 8 1/3 innings in the outfield over the last six seasons, Ohtani has only pitched and hit as the DH. The fact that he wouldn’t have been able to do that with the Cubs if he signed back then hampered not just theirs but any of the NL teams’ chances to sign him.

“It was hard at the time, because I though we were at a pretty big disadvantage not having the DH at that point. It was pretty clear that he wanted to do both, and DH-ing was the best option for that. We couldn’t provide that. … The ability to DH as opposed to play outfield was certainly something that was discussed at that time. It doesn’t surprise me in the end that he picked an AL team, but I wish we could roll back the clock and take a shot at it again.”

Hoyer noted that the pitching production ultimately lived up to expectations, and Ohtani’s offense was even underestimated at the time. That’s pretty clear now, especially after back-to-back American League MVPs.

There’s obviously risk in pursuing Ohtani, as the Cubs are reported to be doing. He’s coming off elbow surgery for a torn UCL in September (wasn’t explicitly stated to be Tommy John surgery, which would be the second of his career). Though he’s expected to be able to hit in time for Opening Day 2024, he won’t pitch until 2025, and there are legitimate concerns about what his pitching future looks like after the surgery.

But this is still Shohei Ohtani, someone who can change a franchise on name value alone. If the Cubs are truly interested in bringing him to Chicago, it’s safe to assume the reward outweighs the risk.

Reports are that geography may not matter as much to Ohtani this time around, and the NL obviously has the DH now. Does that give the Cubs a better chance to sign him? We’ll find out soon enough.

Thoughts on 3 non-tendered Cubs

The non-tender deadline came around Friday night, and with their 40-man roster full, the Cubs were expected to let some players walk. Those turned out to all be pitchers who at one point appeared to have futures as impact arms in the bullpen: Codi Heuer, Brandon Hughes and Ethan Roberts.

Heuer, acquired from the White Sox in the 2021 Craig Kimbrel trade, has been hampered by injuries the last two years. In fact, due to March 2022 Tommy John surgery that required 15-16 months of recovery and then a fractured elbow that resulted in season-ending surgery in June, Heuer hasn’t throw a pitch in a big league game since Sept. 29, 2021.

The last update on Heuer a month ago said that he had completed the initial healing and range of motion phase of his rehab, and the plan was to start a throwing progression starting in mid-November. However, there was still no specific timeline for his return, and as tough as it has been to see his career been derailed the last two years, this wasn’t an unexpected outcome. The Cubs can still bring him back on a minor league deal.

Hughes was one of the Cubs’ most-trusted relievers after he debuted in May 2022, but he wasn’t effective in the first three months of the season. A knee issue was certainly a factor in that, which also forced him to the injured list three different times. He didn’t pitch for the Cubs past June 11, having a surgical debridement at the end of June that limited him to only a rehab assignment with Triple-A Iowa in September.

Though he is expected to have a normal offseason, the Cubs chose to open the roster spot for now. Perhaps the plan is to do something similar to what they did with Mark Leiter Jr. last offseason. They designated Leiter for assignment in January but then added him back to the roster for Opening Day. It would make sense if the Cubs had something similar in mind for Hughes.

The Roberts move came as a bit more of a shock. He missed all of 2023 after undergoing Tommy John surgery in July 2022, and though he was hopeful he could pitch for the Cubs last season, he never did get back into game action.

The team anticipated a normal offseason progression for Roberts, too. When he was healthy to begin the 2022 season, he had flashes of a really strong arm for the Cubs’ bullpen. So, like the others, it just makes sense for the Cubs to try to bring Roberts back on a minor league deal.

Quick hitters

  • Were you surprised to see Marcus Stroman opt out of the last year on his contract? In a way, so was Hoyer. Though he’d had plenty of conversations with Stroman’s agent, Brodie Van Wagenen, about what that side was thinking, it came down to that last phone call before Hoyer knew what was happening.

    “I really didn’t know,” Hoyer said. “When he called me and told me the decision, I really didn’t know what it was going to be. In this market, I think he felt like he could secure a multi-year deal. I think that was a priority. But yeah, it’s not often when you’re really, like, I truly didn’t know which direction that was going to go. That’s why we had a bunch of conversations, because I think they were kind of feeling it out and thinking about it, too.”

    The Cubs have not ruled out a reunion, of course, but it feels a bit of a long shot that he does return to the North Side. Stroman opting out of his contract opens up $21 million on the club’s payroll for 2024.
  • We’ve all heard the way Hoyer and Co. have gushed about new manager Craig Counsell. And would you expect anything else? They obviously went out and hired him for a reason.

    But what about to the team up north, the team Counsell left to move to Chicago? For the organization that gave Counsell his first managing job, and who were very interested in keeping bringing him back, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see them be a little upset at the move. But as surprised as his old boss, Brewers GM Matt Arnold, was to see him go to the Cubs, he still had nothing but good things to say.

    “Look, everything that Craig has done, all the accolades, he deserves,” Arnold said. “I certainly enjoyed our time together. I’ll always have good memories working with Craig Counsell. There’s no question about that.”

    Still, Arnold isn’t buying into the idea that Milwaukee is doomed without Counsell at the helm. He’s appreciative of Counsell’s contributions, for sure, but he’s confident they still have people in the Brewers organization that can help the success continue.

    “Craig has an opportunity here, and so do we,” Arnold said. “We’re going to take a fresh look at everything that we’ve done. We’ve had a lot of success here and I think Craig is part of that, but Craig is not the only part of that.”
  • It’s not the strongest of free-agent classes this winter, which may be a reason why the Cubs aren’t committing to pushing all of their chips in. But it seems some big names may be available via trade (Juan Soto or Pete Alonso, anyone?).

    Are executives getting the sense that the trade market will be robust?

    “I don’t have a sense yet,” Hoyer said at the GM Meetings. “My gut is it’ll be robust, but the initial conversations are just team needs, what you’re looking for. People might exchange some names, but the reality is that you don’t see a lot of deals made on Nov. 10. These things take some time. It feels like Thanksgiving is always sort of the kickoff with things starting to heat up after that.”
  • Counsell said at his introductory press conference last week that he wanted to be slow and deliberate in putting together his coaching staff. He “hadn’t done homework on the Cubs” because they weren’t on his radar until very late, so he wants to get all the information he needs on potential members of his staff.

    However, he’ll be bringing in some new faces, both to Cubs fans and to himself. Pat Murphy, his longtime bench coach, took over the managerial spot in Milwaukee and retained the rest of Counsell’s old coaching staff. Former Cubs bench coach Andy Green has reportedly taken a job in the Mets’ front office, and former assistant hitting coach Johnny Washington is taking over as the Angels hitting coach, the team announced over the weekend.

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