Remember this name: Shohei Ohtani. If the Seattle Mariners have their way, he’ll be the team’s star attraction for the next decade.
This is the week in which the feeding frenzy for Ohtani’s services officially gets underway. The player known as the Japanese Babe Ruth is expected to officially become available to Major League Baseball teams when the new agreement between MLB, Nippon Professional Baseball and the MLB Players Association is ratified Friday, and the Mariners are hoping to win the race to sign Ohtani in what may be the most unique free-agent situation in baseball history.
The first unique angle is the player himself. Ohtani was a star in Japan both on the mound and at the plate. Ohtani not only was the ace pitcher for the Nippon Ham Fighters, when he wasn’t pitching he was the team’s best hitter. In 2016 Ohtani was 10-4 with a 1.86 ERA as a pitcher, walking 45 and striking out 174 in 140.0 innings, and he triple slashed .322/.416/.588 at the plate, slugging 22 homers in 323 at bats. Last season Ohtani had his season shortened by an ankle injury, but he’s expected to be back to full strength by spring training. The general consensus is that Ohtani will fare better as a pitcher than a hitter in his transition to MLB, but Ohtani himself has expressed his desire to continue both pitching and hitting.
Then there’s Ohtani’s age. Past Japanese stars have come to MLB after earning free agency in Japan, or once they neared it. Their Japanese teams would post the player, with MLB teams submitting bids. The Japanese team would accept one bid, and that MLB team would have exclusive rights to negotiate a contract. However, Ohtani is just 23 years old, and MLB states that players under 25 are subject to international free-agent rules, which limit the amount of money a player can be offered. Therefore, all 30 MLB teams will be in on this, not just those with the most financial resources.
So teams are going to have to sell themselves to Ohtani, whether that’s having the most international bonus money available (the Texas Rangers currently have the most), having the market that allows for the greatest endorsement possibilities (one thinks this favors the New York Yankees), having close ties with Japan (Seattle sits well here), or giving Ohtani the greatest opportunity to both pitch and hit.
Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto is on record about his desire to land Ohtani, and he’s already made one trade that’s only purpose was to add international bonus money. Given Seattle’s current issues — a broken-down starting rotation, aging stars on offense, little help available in the minors — Ohtani may be the Mariners’ best shot at setting up a playoff run in 2018.
Can the Mariners land this offseason’s most intriguing free agent? What team do you think Ohtani will end up with?