So, who gets the next Babe Ruth?
Japanese star Shohei Ohtani has reportedly met with each of the seven finalists for his services over the past two days, including a Tuesday night meeting in Los Angeles with the Seattle Mariners. Ohtani has until Dec. 22 to finalize a contract, though the San Franciso Chronicle reported that Ohtani prefers to make a decision before next week’s winter meetings.
In case you were wondering why he’s this offseason’s most coveted major league acquisition, Babe Ruth is the only player in major league history to win 10 games as a pitcher and hit 10 home runs as a hitter in the same season. He did that in 1918 as a 23-year-old. Ohtani has done that twice in Japan, as a 19-year-old in 2014 and then as 21-year old.
And now he wants to do that in the major leagues.And now he wants to do that in the major leagues.
Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto has already raved about the 23-year-old right-handed pitcher, left-handed hitter.
Ohtani set a Japan League record by reportedly throwing a 101.9 mph fastball, and his average fastball was 97.5 mph, according to Trackman data obtained by MLB.com.
He also won the 2016 Home Run Derby, once hitting a ball into the Tokyo Dome roof. The average exit velocity on his 31 tracked fly balls was 94.3 mph, with the MLB average being 91.2 mph.
He was the Pacific League MVP in 2016, going 10-4 with a 1.86 ERA and hitting .322 with 22 home runs and 67 RBIs.
So what does Ohtani want in a major league organization?
It certainly doesn’t appear to be the money or the market, or else he wouldn’t have shocked the New York Yankees or the Boston Red Sox by not including them as part of his seven finalists – the Mariners, Chicago Cubs, Los Angeles Angels, Los Angeles Dodgers, San Diego Padres San Francisco Giants and Texas Rangers.
Ohtani will be brought into an organization on a minor-league contract because he falls under rules for international free agents under 25. Once he is added to a major-league roster he will be paid the minimum salary of $545,000.
Reports have said Ohtani would prefer to join a team without other Japanese players, to avoid taking attention away from them. And he would prefer to join a team that hasn’t had a Japanese superstar in its past, only to avoid comparisons, reported John Shea of the San Francisco Chronicle.
He wants to go to an organization that does spring training in Arizona – and all seven of these finalists do, but he’d also prefer to play on the West Coast, to make it easier on his family flying from Japan, though the Rangers and Cubs aren’t West Coast).
And Yankees GM Brian Cashman speculated that Ohtani seems to prefer a smaller market, and the Cubs, Angels, Dodgers and Rangers play in the biggest markets.
Here’s a breakdown of each of the seven finalists (in alphabetical order):
An AL team would seem to have an advantage because Ohtani could be used as a DH. He hasn’t played outfield since 2014, serving as a DH with the Nippon Ham Fighters on days he didn’t pitch. But he’s also extremely fast and has played the corner outfield positions.
The Cubs have a Gold Glove right fielder in Jason Heyward, but Mark Gonzales of the Chicago Tribune reports they would shuffle to create space for Ohtani, moving Heyward to center field. ESPN’s Buster Olney tweeted that, against right-handers, Ben Zobrist could play second and bat leadoff with left-handers Kyle Schwarber, Ohtani and Heyward batting 5-7.
But the Cubs aren’t in so small of a market, though team president Theo Epstein once recruited former Japan pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka to the Boston Red Sox.
LOS ANGELES ANGELS
They have Mike Trout.
That could be a selling point, especially since Ohtani wouldn’t be expected to be the biggest star, or he could at least have a player to measure himself against, though reports indicate he’d like to go to a team that is going to give him some time to let him take some lumps as a hitter.
DH Albert Pujols and the four years, $114 million remaining on his contract might be a problem. He could theoretically play first base like he did with the St. Louis Cardinals, but Pujols has appeared defensively only 34 times the past two seasons.
LOS ANGELES DODGERS
They can offer a $300,000 signing bonus and have already gone through a Japan-to-MLB transition with Kenta Maeda, using him on more than four days rest in the majority of his starts this past season. Ohtani might like that since starting pitchers in Japan generally work about once a week.
But, then again, according to the Chronicle report, he might not like playing on the same team as Maeda.
He’d be living abroad for the first time, and maybe he’d prefer to play for a team in a market with a large Japanese community. The greater Los Angeles area has the largest Japanese-American population in the U.S. outside of Honolulu. Seattle is No. 3 and San Francisco is No. 4.
And the Dodgers were the closest of the remaining teams to winning the World Series last year.
SAN DIEGO PADRES
Some reports indicate them as the front-runner.
They were the final team to meet with Ohtani and have extensive Japanese ties in their front office, including former Dodgers scouting director Logan White, former Dodgers coordinator of Asian operations Acey Kohrogi, and former Dodgers pitchers Hideo Nomo and Takashi Saito. Nomo’s son is reported to be Ohtani’s translator.
A scout told Bill Allen of Kyodo News on Tuesday that Ohtani had a lot of structure with the Fighters and that he could be looking for that, “for a team with a solid plan.” He’s lived at the team’s training facilities in Sapporo and rarely ventured out, Allen reported. So the Padres’ Japanese-filled front office might seem more attractive to him.
And Padres GM A.J. Preller was a driving force in bringing Yu Darvish to the Rangers.
SAN FRANCISCO GIANTS
The Giants have come to terms on a trade for another outfielder – the Marlins’ Giancarlo Stanton, though the slugger needs to approve it.
Stanton combined with Ohtani?
Ohtani’s first meeting was Monday with the Giants and their contingency included All-Star catcher Buster Posey. The Chronicle reported that Ohtani spoke about Posey during his meeting with the Giants and said the catcher has “great aura.” Giants manager Bruce Bochy was there, too, and they had “good, light-hearted exchanges.” And Giants bench coach Hensley Meulens speaks Japanese.
Every year the Giants honor Masanori Murakami, who is the first Japanese-born player in baseball history.
Bob Nightengale of USA Today reported that several MLB GMs believed the Mariners were the “clear-cut front runners” for Ohtani.
Though, many recently believed the Yankees were the favorite. So take that for what it’s worth.
The Mariners met with Ohtani and his representatives on Tuesday in Los Angeles, according to reports. And Dipoto, director of scouting Tom Allison, Pacific Rim liaison assistant Antony Suzuki and Japan-based scout Manny Noto traveled to Japan in September to watch Ohtani play.
Entering the week, the Mariners had $1.55 million available in international slot money, though Dipoto acquired more by trading minor league catcher David Banuelos to the Twins, a deal announced Wednesday.
There’s certainly a history of success with Japanese players transitioning to the MLB in Seattle – Ichiro Suzuki at the forefront, but also Kaz Sasaki, Kenji Johjima and they re-signed Hisashi Iwakuma to a minor league contract. Though, maybe al that is going against the Mariners.
Ohtani would have some familiarity with the club, since the Fighters trained in Arizona at the Peoria Sports Complex, which Seattle shares with the Padres.
And maybe Tacoma could be a selling point? If he were to get injured (like he was for much of 2017 with ankle and thigh injuries) he could rehab with the Rainiers just down the road, with SeaTac Airport no farther away. Only Texas offers a Triple-A team with such close proximity (Round Rock).
No remaining team can offer as much money. The Rangers have $3.53 million available, though money doesn’t seem to be the priority for Ohtani. But Texas also doesn’t have a state income tax.
The Rangers also have some flexibility at DH and right field,. They would prefer Shin-Soo Choo be at DH, Jeff Wilson of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported, which could open up right field for Ohtani on occasion. He also reported that the Rangers are talking about possibly having a six-man rotation in 2018, which likely means they would figure Ohtani into that.
They sent an eight-person team Tuesday afternoon, led by co-owner Ray Davis, GM Jon Daniels and manager Jeff Bannister. The area might not be so West Coast, but it worked well for Yu Darvish. He has a house in Dallas and considers Dallas to be his home away from home, the Star-Telegram reported. And DFW Airport has direct flights to Japan.
The Rangers built in extra rest into Darvish’s first few seasons to get him through and could plan similarly for Ohtani.
A former teammate of Ohtani’s said he believes the 23-year-old already knows where he’s headed.
“He’s so disciplined, and you can tell his parents raised him very strictly, treating people with kindness,” former Padres pitcher Anthony Bass told the San Diego Union-Tribune. Bass played with Ohtani in 2016. “It doesn’t surprise me that he reaches out to all these teams, regardless of whether he already knows his answer, just to kind of show some kind of respect and listen to everyone’s offers. But I think he does know where he wants to go.”
TJ Cotterill: 253-597-8677