With Shohei Ohtani one step closer to the Major Leagues after choosing an agency to represent him, now is a good time to check in with some thoughts on what could turn out to be the biggest story of the offseason.
There is still one large hurdle to clear before Ohtani’s free agency becomes a reality, and that is compensation to Ohtani’s team in Japan, the Nippon Ham Fighters. If an MLB team had signed him before Oct. 31, it would have been required to pay a transfer fee of $20 million. The agreement between the MLB and Nippon Professional Baseball has expired, however, and the MLBPA is pushing for any fee paid to NPB teams to be tied to the value of the player’s contract going forward. With new international signing rules severely limiting what a team can spend on international free agents, that figure would be greatly reduced from what teams have received in the past. MLB is reportedly willing to grandfather Ohtani under the previous rules, and Jon Morosi of the MLB Network reports the Players’ Association is ready to meet with Ohtani’s representation and work toward a resolution.
Things will get very interesting if a deal is worked out, with the chase for Ohtani taking up ample surface space on the hot stove this winter. Speculation on the national front is Ohtani will land with the Dodgers or Yankees, but those making predictions admit very little is known about the intentions of the pitching and hitting star. The one thing we do seem to know is that he wants to play both ways, and in talking to baseball sources both here and in Japan, this goes well beyond occasional hitting duties with one person going so far as to say that Ohtani wants to hit on days he pitches. While I’m not sure how true or feasible that is in the American League, I think it is clear that this is not a situation where he will be eased into hitting after establishing himself on the mound.
It’s a tricky situation without a blueprint, but for those chasing Ohtani, it is something they are going to have to figure out and sell. One baseball executive I talked with said of course everyone who is interested will say yes, we will allow you to both hit and pitch if that’s what it takes for you to sign with us. It will come down to who Ohtani and his representation believes will actually follow through.
The sell and the relationship will be key, and on the matter of playing both ways, based on what I heard from Jerry Dipoto in late July this year I believe he can put up a good sell. An interview he had with Danny, Dave and Moore that afternoon caught my ear. In a conversation about the newly acquired Marco Gonzales, who won the John Olerud Two-Way Player of the Year Award in college, Dipoto was asked if he thought we could see more pitchers hitting on days they didn’t pitch in the future. To be honest, I thought the question was ridiculous. Dipoto’s answer, however, suprised me. He said absolutely, in fact, he thought it was important that teams be open to the possibility as it was a way to draw better athletes not just to the sport, but to pitching. Whether or not he had Ohtani in mind when he made those comments, it was a good sell.
Off the field, the Mariners should also have much to offer. A profile in the Los Angeles Times by Dylan Hernandez, who traveled to Japan in September for the story, gives us a glimpse into Ohtani’s background. To date, he has lived a very low key life while going about the business of being Japan’s top pitcher and one of the best hitters in his short time in the league. How low key? He lives in the Nippon Ham Fighters’ player dorm. He has not been about the spotlight that will inevitably find him in the US. There are different degrees of spotlight, however, and away from the field Seattle has proved to be a comfortable place for Japanese stars to live with Ichiro Suzuki and Hisashi Iwakuma going so far as to spend offseasons here. I am told by many that the Mariners’ reputation in Japan is very good. I have also heard the staff, trainers, interpreters and other people that assist Japanese players on an everyday basis in Seattle are also considered by those in Japan to be top notch.
There is of course the matter of money, and in that area things get murky. Very murky. Under international signing rules, Ohtani will be treated much like a player in the draft, signed to a minor league contract, given a signing bonus and under club control for six years. The signing bonus is limited to what individual teams have available to them in the their international pools. Bob Nightengale of USA Today reported those numbers, with the Rangers on top at $3.535 million, followed by the Yankees at $3.25 million and the Twins right behind with $3.24 million. The Mariners have $1,570,500 to spend, and 12 teams, including the Dodgers, are capped at $300,000 as penalties for exceeding their signing bonus pool under the previous collective bargaining agreement. These numbers mean very little as the contract that follows will be under no restrictions. When that contract comes, whether it is after the first year of play or second, or perhaps even sooner, remains to be seen.
Commissioner Rob Manfred has given his assurance that MLB will monitor the negotiations to ensure there are no under the table deals, but that seems impossible to guarantee. How that angle of negotiations is approached and received is sure to be complicated. All part of the puzzle of what could be the most highly-pursued player of the offseason.