By Bruce Levine–
CHICAGO (CBS) — Japanese baseball phenom Shohei Ohtani appears to be close to deciding his big league destination in the United States.
His decision likely will come by Monday morning, two industry sources say.
Like many of the seven teams remaining in the sweepstakes, the Cubs are saying nothing about the unique vetting system set up by Ohtani and his representatives.
“Out of respect for the player and the process, I will let any information come from the agency,” Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said Thursday in a media session after signing right-hander Tyler Chatwood to a three-year, $38-million deal. “I think that is the proper thing to do.”
Ohtani, a 23-year-old pitcher and outfielder, will have until Dec. 22 to make a choice. When granted free-agent status, he was given 22 days from the first of December to make a deal or return to Japan and play.
Epstein was asked about a timeline being set by Ohtani to let clubs know of his decision.
“That is the type of information I will let come from their side,” Epstein said with a smile as he ended the question-and-answer session.
The Cubs are one of seven finalists that participated in submitting proposals and conducted interviews with Ohtani and his agents. The other finalists are the Mariners, Giants, Angels, Dodgers, Padres and Rangers. The Cubs’ interview was completed Tuesday.
In that process, Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer presented a video and 25-page booklet explaining how Ohtani would fit in well as both a starting pitcher and a position player with the team’s present group of accomplished young players.
Given his premium talent, Ohtani has a unique free agency situation. He’s subject to international signing rules for players under 25 years old, so he can’t receive more than a $3.55 million bonus. Most teams can’t even offer that, including the Cubs, who are limited to a $300,000 because they exceeded their signing bonus pool in the previous collective bargaining agreement. The team that signs Ohtani must pay $20 million in posting fees as well.
Epstein is known as the ultimate sleuth when on the prowl for free agents in the past. He had great success in convincing Japanese pitcher Daisuke Matsusaka to sign a long-term deal with the Red Sox in 2006 for six years and $52 million. Matsusaka won 33 games during the first two seasons before injuries hampered his career.
The National League clubs still left in the bidding have a tougher task explaining how Ohtani will be used at a position. Although he’s a trained outfielder with great speed, Ohtani has only been used as a designated hitter the last three seasons when not pitching.
All seven clubs that Ohtani selected as finalists train in Arizona during the Cactus League season. They all have their minor league operations and complexes there as well. The proximity to Japan appears more important to Ohtani in the offseason than the 162-game schedule. That logic would even the playing field for the Cubs, who along with the Rangers are the only non-West Coast teams on the list.
Facility-wise, the Cubs may be No. 1 in the criteria set by Ohtani. They arguably have the best and most inclusive training facility in baseball between their Mesa, Ariz. complex and Wrigley Field.
The Cubs’ training and medical staff have kept most of the players on the field and productive the last three seasons, and those intangibles are said to be important to Ohtani.
Epstein said despite signing Chatwood and still being in the hunt for Ohtani, adding pitching for the rotation and bullpen are still priorities. He and his staff are preparing for the Winter Meetings, which start Sunday and run all next week.
Bruce Levine covers the Cubs and White Sox for 670 The Score and CBSChicago.com. Follow him on Twitter @MLBBruceLevine.