CHICAGO — If only the designated hitter rule had come to the National League before 2022. It could have turned the tide for the Japanese two-way star. Shohei Ohtanithe career of -as well as the trajectory of the Chicago Cubs. At least that’s what the Cubs thought when they pursued him in 2017, before he signed with the Los Angeles Angels.

“It was pretty clear that I wanted to do both [hitting and pitching]”As good as the meeting with him was, we always knew it was going to be an uphill climb.”

The Cubs were one of Seven finalists for Ohtani’s services back then — and one of two not located on the West Coast. At the time, Chicago was in the midst of a winning window, having reached the NLCS three consecutive seasons, taking home a World Series championship in 2016.

“Things were going pretty well at the time,” Hoyer said. “I think he was intrigued.”

So were the Cubs.

Ohtani, now the biggest free agent in sports history, is deciding where he wants to play next, and the Cubs are again interested in courting him, according to sources familiar with the situation.

Ohtani is expected to win his second American League Most Valuable Player Award when the winners are announced Thursday night. Everyone knew he could pitch, but what he’s done at the plate over the past six seasons has been eye-opening for fans and executives alike.

“There was no question about his ability on the mound,” Hoyer recalled. “The offensive part of his game was underestimated.”

There will be plenty of competition for Ohtani this winter, but at least Chicago has the designated hitter to offer this time. He also just hired highly-respected manager Craig Counsell to take over an 83-win team that narrowly missed the postseason in 2023. Additionally, the team has a payroll that’s off the books in the form of Jason Hayward ($21 million) and Cody Bellinger ($17.5 million), leaving money for a massive deal. The Cubs were below the luxury tax threshold in 2023, ranking 11thth on payroll, which makes it a little less undesirable to exceed it, if necessary.

The time might finally be right for a Cubs-Ohtani union.

“Ohtani would own Wrigley Field, literally,” one National League scout joked about his potential salary. “He would surely own Chicago.”

What the Ohtani chase means for Bellinger

Bellinger was a success story in 2023. He signed a one-year deal with Chicago before the season and won a Silver Slugger Award, along with Comeback Player of the Year honors after compiling a 133 OPS+. And he played great defense , both in center field and first base. He accomplished what he set out to do when he arrived in Chicago: rebuild his value and return to free agency.

“There’s a lot of interest in Cody Bellinger,” his agent, Scott Boras, said recently. “Cody had a great experience in Chicago. He can play well anywhere. A lot of it has to do with ownership. It has to do with his commitment.”

The Cubs appear committed to spending money this offseason, especially after signing Counsell to a five-year, $40 million contract. a record for a manager.

“I quickly saw that the organization is in excellent health,” Counsell said. “There is momentum building here.”

But while an Ohtani and Bellinger pairing would be a dream scenario for fans, it’s unlikely. Multiple sources think the Cubs are more likely to sign Ohtani than bring back Bellinger with their own massive deal.

“I think Bellinger is gone,” a source familiar with the situation said early in the offseason.

Circumstances and history are two reasons the Cubs and Bellinger may not reunite. First, there will likely be teams not in Ohtani’s mix that are desperate for the next best left-handed bat available. He New York Yankees They were interested in Bellinger at the trade deadline and will be again, according to sources familiar with their dealings. He Toronto Blue Jays They have also been missing a dangerous left-handed hitter. He San Francisco Giants They are also among Bellinger’s suitors.

Under Hoyer and owner Tom Ricketts, the Cubs have been measured in their dealings with free agents. Ohtani aside, the organization isn’t the type to get into bidding wars. And it won’t be that way for Bellinger, according to sources familiar with the situation.

Another side of the narrative involves Boras and Ricketts personally. They don’t have the type of relationship where the agent can pick up the phone and negotiate with the owner like Boras has done in other situations.

To wit: The Cubs haven’t signed a multi-year contract with a Boras client in a long time. That includes players on the free agent market, those they have drafted and who have won an MVP (Chris Bryant) or those they have traded for and who have won a Cy Young Award (Jake Arrieta). Everyone has moved on. Bellinger likely will too.

Boras was asked if the timing of a deal with Bellinger is related to Ohtani, who is represented by a different agency.

“Bellinger is a position player, Shohei is a designated hitter, so those demand platforms are very different,” Boras said. “The teams that are approaching Cody are teams that want him to play every day in the field. Maybe they’ll go with a designated hitter.” and Cody, but his [paths] Don’t cross for that reason.”

Ohtani is not the only missing piece

Whether Ohtani becomes a Cub or not, the team has other holes to fill, including potentially at first and third base, as well as their starting pitcher. They can turn to their farming system to make a trade, if necessary, as it is stronger than ever. ranking second in ESPN’s Kiley McDaniel’s latest analysis.

The team also has a great hitting outfielder/infielder. Christopher Morel playing first base over the winter in an attempt to find him a home around the diamond. If he New York Mets They were going to do Pete Alonso Available in a trade, the Cubs could be a fit, with Morel as a core player in return, according to sources familiar with their thinking.

But Alonso recently switched agents to Boras, who is also San Diego Padres gardener juan sotoThe agent. Both players will be free agents after 2024, and while a trade-and-sign deal for either player seems sensible, it is unlikely.

“I don’t think any player wants to play for an organization they don’t know,” Boras said. “That’s the normal course.”

In other words, playing all year and then testing the waters of free agency is more than likely for Alonso and Soto unless they re-sign with their current teams. New Mets president David Stearns also said he expects Alonso to be his starting first baseman on Opening Day, although a lot can change between now and then.

At third base, a reunion of the Cubs with the veteran Jeimer Candelario It doesn’t seem likely, according to a source familiar with the situation. Interest in Candelario should be high a year into his career, with Toronto and his former team, Washington, already showing something. Former second baseman Nick Madrigal He played admirably at third for the Cubs when healthy last season, but probably won’t be an everyday option going forward.

The Cubs are also interested in Japanese pitchers Yoshinobu Yamamoto and Shota Imanaga (the latter already spent time in Chicago), according to sources familiar with the situation. They also have their eye on Milwaukee’s starter Corbin Burnes, in case the Brewers begin to subtract, and Milwaukee is willing to negotiate with the team that just stole its manager. The Cubs would like to acquire a starter next Marcos Stromman He recently opted out of his deal, although young pitching is a sudden strength for the organization. Minor league right-hander Cade Horton could end up being the best pitching prospect in baseball next year, according to McDaniel.

But the big fish is still Ohtani. Like all of their suitors so far, the Cubs are keeping their strategy a secret.

“In the end I wasn’t surprised he picked an American League team,” Hoyer said of the 2017 draft, “but we wish we could turn back time and try again.”

Sometimes second chances never materialize, but six years after first trying to court him, the Cubs have another chance.

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