Column: There’s no prize for winning MLB’s winter meetings, so the Shohei Ohtani waiting game goes on

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The good news for Chicago Cubs fans is Shohei Ohtani remained unsigned late into the second day of the MLB winter meetings.

But whether the Cubs were still among the teams in the mix for the baseball unicorn was a question President Jed Hoyer repeatedly avoided, even after a social media report claimed the Cubs were out.

Hoyer said there was no news to report and he didn’t know where the rumor came from. He declined to talk about any discussions with free agents, though manager Craig Counsell said earlier he had not talked to Ohtani.

The notion that Hoyer feels some urgency to make a splashy signing for his new $40 million manager was downplayed. Hoyer said he sold Counsell on “where the organization was going.”

“It wasn’t a referendum on ’24 necessarily,” Hoyer said. “But more where we are as a franchise, an organization at this moment in time. I don’t feel any big need to justify that. Certainly, I have no doubt over the next few years we’ll be aggressive. If that’s this year, great. If that’s in future years … I don’t feel like we have to because of that.”

Actually, there has been little action thus far, and Hoyer said many teams’ representatives were leaving town early Wednesday and blowing off the last day.

There is no rule that the first domino has to fall for things to get done, but that seems to be the way this winter will shake out.

“Sometimes the dominos fall as you think,” Hoyer said. “But if you assume they’re going to fall that way you can get yourself in a lot of trouble waiting.”

I had a flashback to the 2012 winter meetings in Nashville, when Hoyer, then general manager, said he wasn’t worried about the lack of a signing or trade to appease fans.

“If the things we did here don’t lead to progress down the road, then it wasn’t productive,” he said in ’12. “But I don’t think you have to walk out of here with deer antlers.”

That line works just as well 11 years later. There is no prize for winning the winter meetings, and so the waiting game goes on even without deer antlers being dispersed.

Los Angeles Dodgers manager Dave Roberts was less secretive about their pursuit of Ohtani, telling reporters they met with him last week for 2-3 hours. The Dodgers have been considered the favorites since Day One of free agency, while the Cubs recently moved up the list on betting sites as runner-up.

One executive not in the mix said he thought the Dodgers would reel him in when all was said and done because they would be willing to outbid the rest, and money talks. Toronto, San Francisco and the Los Angeles Angels have been rumored as the other pursuers.

Without talking about a specific player, Hoyer conceded he is reluctant to hand out long-term deals because “you’re betting on human beings with bones and ligaments and all those different things.”

But he then added: “There are times when it makes sense to do it.”

Maybe now? Or maybe not.

Meanwhile, Counsell is learning about life on the other side of the fence, managing a team that at least is mentioned in free-agent rumors after nine years in Milwaukee.

At last year’s winter meetings in San Diego, Counsell was asked about the difficulty of trying to manage in a small market without the ability to spend on the big-ticket items.

“There are good players out there that aren’t at that level financially,” he told MLB Network. “It’s our job to find them.”

Now that he’s commuting south of the Mars Cheese Castle for a team that has financial flexibility, Counsell can dream of getting one or more of those players on his 26-man roster.

“Look, the names you’re discussing are different,” Counsell said Tuesday. “There’s no question about it, and the conversations you can be involved in are different. But, I will say the different ways that different markets have to look at it is helpful to provide new ideas, and hopefully idea generation of ways to get better still.”

The Cubs don’t care to play their hand to the media, which makes sense with so many rumors being spread about their interest in so many players in trades or free agency. Some of the rumors have been laughed off by team executives, but they still feed the beast of MLB Trade Rumors and various media outlets and aggregating sites.

Isn’t there some upside in having your name out there? People are talking about the Cubs much more than they have been in recent winters. Good for the organization, but a headache for Hoyer to be asked about players he has shown no interest in.

Hoyer almost misses the old days of the winter meetings, when front office executives learned about negotiating face-to-face. The meetings have an “anachronistic nature,” he said, thanks to modern technology.

“Frankly I wasn’t even here (Monday) and I did 50 phone calls from the airport in Newark,” he said. “No one knew if I was here or not. In that regard, it’s very different. With cell phones and Zooms people don’t even know where you’re making that phone call from. The Dodgers are staying off-site.”

Hoyer still prefers the old-fashioned way, even if nothing gets done here. One executive on Tuesday recalled doing a deal on a cocktail napkin in the bar at the winter meetings years ago. But drinking and signing is not advisable with the mega deals being discussed nowadays, and GMs are much more health conscious.

The only thing that’s remained the same is the secrecy of execs hoping to outmaneuver their rivals, as we’ve seen in the Ohtani sweepstakes.

“In this case, there is real secrecy but everyone knows there’s secrecy,” Hoyer said. “There have been others that have been real secrets that no one knew about, if that makes sense.”

Hoyer kept his pursuit of Counsell top secret and shocked the baseball world last month by hiring the most expensive free-agent manager in history.

What will he do for an encore?

Don’t hand out those deer antlers just yet.


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