The Cubs have never signed a free agent for more than the $184 million they committed to Jason Heyward eight years ago. But it appears Tom Ricketts is prepared to set to blow away the Heyward and Dansby Swanson deals in the pursuit of Shohei Ohtani.
Ricketts and his two team presidents, Jed Hoyer and Crane Kenney, must feel that Ohtani is the answer both in terms of restoring the franchise as a perennial contender and in rebuilding a sagging fanbase.
Wrigley Field tickets have been in major demand since Harry Caray, Ryne Sandberg and Rick Sutcliffe brought Chicagoans out onto the adjacent rooftops in 1984. But the team announced last month that there is no longer a waiting list for season tickets, thanks no doubt to the deconstruction of the 2016 championship team.
The Cubs drew 3.23 million fans to a renovated Wrigley Field in ’16 but saw attendance slip below 2 million in 2021, with the Covid-19 pandemic contributing to the team’s loss of appeal. The Cubs ranked sixth in the National League with an attendance of 2.775 last season, following the addition of Swanson (seven years, $177 million) and 2019 MVP Cody Bellinger.
It would make the loudest statement possible if they persevered to sign Ohtani, the two-way Japanese talent whose future as a pitcher is clouded by surgery to repair a damaged ligament in his right elbow in September.
But national baseball analyst Travis Sawchik points out how Ohtani’s gap-to-gap power perfectly fits the dimensions of Wrigley Field. Ohtani has averaged 41 home runs the last three years and could exceed that production at Wrigley, where it is 368 feet to the outfield gaps and an even 400 to center.
The Cubs unsuccessfully pursued Ohtani when he was posted by the Nippon Ham Fighters after the 2017 season. They reportedly are among the finalists for his service as a free agent after his six seasons with the Los Angeles Angels.
ESPN’s Jeff Passan reported on Friday that the Cubs, Dodgers, Blue Jays and Angels have emerged as frontrunners for Ohtani. He quotes sources saying the Rangers, Mets and Red Sox have dropped out of the bidding, which he reports will top $500 million. He reports the Giants are also interested.
Passan reports the Cubs have also been engaged in trade conversations with the Padres on outfielder Juan Soto, like Ohtani one of the game’s top hitters. He is one year away from free agency and San Diego appears to be interested in cutting its payroll ($248.9 million on Opening Day, per Spotrac).
MLB Trade Rumors projects Soto can command a record $32 million in arbitration. The Cubs appear to have an inventory of minor-league prospects that could get a major trade done but most likely would want to add Soto only if they are confident they can sign the 25-year-old outfielder to a long-term extension.
Funding an Ohtani- or Soto-sized contract is relatively simple math for the Cubs’ owner and his front office. They opened last season with a $184 million payroll and saw $41.325 million freed up when Marcus Stroman opted out of the final season on a three-year deal and Bellinger declined a qualifying offer. He had signed a one-year deal with a player option hoping to restore his value, and seems to have accomplished his goal.
Factor in a surge in season-ticket sales and revenue from the Cubs-owned regional television network and you can understand Ricketts wanting to see Hoyer sign Ohtani or trade for Soto. They’re positioned to add one of the marquee players available this off-season but it’s going to take a record investment to do it. Don’t count them out.