There are 18 days to go, at the most, until we learn the final landing spot for Shohei Ohtani. Compared to other hugely anticipated signings in baseball, this one is moving at light speed due to the Dec. 22 deadline.
What had been considered for some time to be a field of 30 came into better focus Sunday night as the seven teams still in play were revealed. A quick lesson in handicapping this sweepstakes was hopefully learned when the New York Yankees, the sure favorite declared by many both in and out of the game to land Ohtani, was the first team eliminated from contention. Up to that point, we really knew nothing about Ohtani’s intentions. We still don’t know much as he has yet to state them publicly, but we can perhaps glean a little more insight into his thinking by examining the teams that are still standing.
The Giants, Padres, Dodgers, Cubs, Angels, Rangers and Mariners make up the Ohtani Seven. Four National League teams, three from the American League. Five West Coast teams, two from the Central time zone. The Mariners own the shortest flight time to Tokyo at 9 hours 36 minutes, the Rangers with the longest at 12 hours 49 minutes. Five teams come from the top 10 media markets, with Seattle in the top 20 and San Diego in the top 30. There is one superspender in the Dodgers, whose opening day payroll in 2017 topped $265 million, while the Padres brought up the rear (for both the group and nearly all of MLB) at $91 million. The other five teams were grouped somewhat tightly in the $171 million (Mariners) to $191 million (Giants) range. Two of the seven teams made the playoffs last season and the other five all posted losing records, with the Giants putting up the worst record in baseball.
There has been debate over which league would be a better fit for Ohtani, who wants to hit as well as pitch. There have been reports of some National League teams pushing the idea that in the NL Ohtani might actually have more chances to swing the bat as they use pinch-hitters more often. That seems to be a stretch when Ohtani could rack up multiple at-bats on DH days in the American League. NL teams will no doubt show plans to put Ohtani in the field at least some, but an interesting question will be how comfortable he will be with that as he has only played eight games in the outfield since the start of the 2014 season. I would assume that since there are four National League teams in contention it is not a deal breaker, but how much more attractive would a DH spot be? That could be a leg up for the American League teams.
What about market size? While it was no doubt encouraging for Seattle and San Diego fans to hear Yankees GM Brian Cashman state that he believed a West Coast team in a smaller market was going to be very happy, larger-market teams are better represented in the group of seven. The Dodgers and Cubs obviously are very high-profile teams. The Angels are a little lower key being truly more Orange County than Los Angeles, no matter how many times they try to sneak the city into their name. Dallas and San Francisco are considered large markets, but still without the spotlight of L.A. or New York.
Media-wise, take the Dodgers and Cubs out of the mix and I don’t see a huge difference in what Ohtani will face in the other cities – with Seattle perhaps seeing a bit less US media due to location. The Japanese contingent that follows him will most likely be the same wherever he goes. He’s already had one run in with the paparazzi in his arrival at LAX, so that may be something he takes into consideration.
The ballparks are positives for all of the clubs but the Angels and Rangers, who will move into a new ballpark in 2020. If Ohtani takes weather into consideration, Seattle believe it or not could be at the top of the list. Rainouts are never a factor at home; neither is the heat. Dallas, Los Angeles and Anaheim can be miserably hot in the summer, stringing together 100-degree-plus days during the season, and in Chicago he could face both extremes.
As for the organizations themselves, each has different things to offer. The Cubs have done a lot of the heavy lifting, as they are built to win and sustain success for some time. With deep pockets they should be able to buy what they can’t grow or trade for in strong free agent market next year. But what they don’t have is a strong history with Japanese players or as big of a Japanese-American population as most of the other cities. They also are one of the furthest cities from Japan.
Texas also adds a few hours to the flight home, but unlike Chicago it has had a Japanese superstar on its team. The Rangers most likely will score loyalty points as well as they showed interest in Ohtani coming out of high school. A con would be they appear to be getting close to a rebuild with or without Ohtani. It is possible that Ohtani could look at this as a plus with the opportunity to spend a couple of years getting his legs under him, with 2020, the year the Rangers’ new stadium opens, as more of a target for contending. While there had long been speculation that Ohtani would sign wherever Yu Darvish played, that appears to have gone the same way as the line of thinking that the Yankees were the favorite, with it looking more likely that Darvish will sign after Ohtani.
The Padres could fall into the same ease-his-way-into-the-league category. While they are not awaiting a stadium, they do have a very strong farm system and could give Ohtani the opportunity to grow with a new core of young players. They too have a history with Ohtani as general manager A.J. Preller was with Texas in its original pursuit and was instrumental in signing Darvish. The Padres are the only team in MLB that Ohtani has any familiarity with as his NPB team, the Nippon-Ham Fighters, have trained in Peoria the past two springs as part of a working agreement they had with the club. There is a very familiar face on the Padres staff as well with former Fighters trainer Seiichiro Nakagaki heading up the applied sports science department of the team.
In the past two days the Padres have become the new favorites of many to win the Ohtani sweepstakes. Baseball writers have listed a strong Japanese presence in the organization (Hideo Nomo and Takashi Saito hold positions in the front office), and there’s the opportunity for Ohtani to be the star there and lower pressure situation all as reasons why it could be the perfect fit. One question that has not been brought up is money. The Padres don’t have a history of giving blockbuster contracts, with the largest they have inked being a six-year, $83 million deal handed to Wil Meyers last January. While teams are forbidden to talk potential future dollars with Ohtani’s camp, I would imagine his agent will have a good idea of what clubs can spend as well as what they are willing to spend. Having not made the big splash in the past, could this be a question mark with the Padres?
Moving up the coast: The Angels are the surprise team on the list for me. With an aging Albert Pujols, little semblance of a young core and a starting staff fronted right now by Garrett Richards (who has made all of 12 starts in the big leagues the last two years), the Angels look to be in need of, if not a rebuild, a major revamp. Location and the chance to play alongside Mike Trout would seem to be the biggest positives for the Angels.
Up the road, the Dodgers appear to have it all with perhaps their only fault being exactly that. If reports that Ohtani wants to go to a team where he can have meaningful impact are accurate, the Dodgers are the team that need him least. If those reports are not accurate and he wants to win right away, the Dodgers give him the best chance. The pressure would be higher, the spotlight brighter, but it could be a straight plug-and-play, all with the benefit of having Clayton Kershaw in a nearby locker.
The Giants can offer another ace for Ohtani to play alongside with Madison Bumgarner leading their staff. While Ohtani’s pitching is the first and foremost draw for all of the clubs seeking Ohtani’s services, the Giants hit the fewest home runs in baseball last season and could desperately use his bat. Manager Bruce Bochy has experience with a starter who can hit a bit and has given Bumgarner a handful of pinch-hitting opportunities. Bochy says he has mapped out a way to get Ohtani 300-400 at-bats. To do so would require significant time in the field.
So how does Seattle stack up against the other six teams remaining? Tough to give an answer when you don’t know what Ohtani is looking for. Seattle should put up a very good livability score. The Mariners’ history with Japanese players perhaps cannot be topped, and his marketability as a Mariner, particularly in Japan, should be strong. General manager Jerry Dipoto is clearly committed to letting Ohtani hit – and hit wherever he is most comfortable, be it as a DH or in the field. While he wouldn’t have a veteran ace on the pitching staff to follow or learn from, he would still have quality vets like Nelson Cruz, Robinson Cano, Kyle Seager and Hisashi Iwakuma to lean on all while being a part of a young core.
With Ohtani coming off a season lost on the pitching side to an ankle injury, the Mariners would be careful with him. From what I have heard there is a willingness to go with some form of a six-man rotation to keep Ohtani on a more familiar work program while watching his innings in his first full year in the big leagues. He will have plenty of help in training and development with the Mariners’ new addition of an entire high-performance department dedicated to getting the best out of each athlete. They have also added two coaches this offseason to work with pitchers, one of whom, new bullpen coach Brian DeLunas, specializes in velocity training.
The long playoff drought for Seattle could be a plus if Ohtani wants to be the hero. As Dipoto pointed out in his weekly Mariners.com podcast, good things have happened when the Mariners have had Japanese superstars on their team. Good things, sure. World Series? That’s one box that has not been checked by the Japanese superstar in Seattle. The opportunity to do something unique still very much exists.
There is plenty Seattle has to offer, and the Mariners have put together a good team to try and get this accomplished. I believe Dipoto’s enthusiasm and manager Scott Servais’ positivity should play well with Ohtani.
The Giants are believed to have had their face-to-face meeting and the Rangers are reported to be scheduled Tuesday. It is just about go-time for the Mariners.