In a typical baseball offseason, even the biggest personnel moves are fundamentally simple equations: Team X signs Player Y to a ZZZ-million-dollar contract (as will likely be the case for J.D. Martinez this winter), or a small-market team trades the superstar it can no longer afford to a large-market team that can (as may be the case with Giancarlo Stanton) for prospects and hope.
But this winter, the most intriguing transaction on the talent marketplace will require something closer to advanced calculus to close out. To land Shohei Ohtani, the fabled, two-way Japanese star, a team will need to navigate the still-to-be-negotiated Nippon Professional Baseball posting system, Major League Baseball’s international bonus pool restrictions and delicate negotiations with Ohtani’s American agents.
And somewhere in there, the team who gets him will need to make a crucial decision, one that could impact Ohtani’s own choice: Is he a pitcher, a hitter — or both?
Simply put, baseball has never seen a phenomenon such as Ohtani, a 23-year-old right-handed pitcher/left-handed slugger who has declared his intentions to play for an MLB team in 2018, after dominating — in both of his roles — for the Nippon Ham Fighters in Japan for much of the past five seasons. In his best season, 2016, the “Babe Ruth of Japan” batted .322/.416/.588 with 22 homers in 382 plate appearances as a hitter and went 10-4 with a 1.86 ERA and 174 strikeouts in 140 innings on the mound. His fastball has been clocked as high as 102.5 mph, and several of his home runs were measured at more than 500 feet.
“At this stage,” New York Mets General Manager Sandy Alderson said at the just-completed GM meetings in Orlando, “everybody has to be somewhat interested. … I think it will be fascinating.”
In a sense, the rules governing the acquisition of foreign talent within baseball’s collective bargaining agreement, reached last winter, never anticipated someone of Ohtani’s talent, youth and haste.
Why haste? Because, had Ohtani waited until he turned 25 to come west, he could have been an unrestricted free agent and probably would have received a nine-figure contract in the states. Instead, by coming over now, he is governed by the same bonus-pool rules that apply to 16-year-old Dominican prospects. His signing bonus will be no more than $3.535 million, and his 2018 salary will be in the neighborhood of $550,000.
In effect, these restrictions remove money from the equation as a decisive factor in Ohtani’s signing — unless you count the under-the-table side deal that 29 other teams are sure to suspect will be cut by the team that ultimately signs him, and that MLB has vowed to police. Teams occasionally sign rookies to long-term contracts during their initial seasons, but in the case of Ohtani such a deal would be highly scrutinized for impropriety.
Nothing can happen with Ohtani until MLB, the MLB Players Association, NPB and Ohtani’s Japanese team agree on a posting protocol, as the old agreement — under which American teams were required to pay a fee of up to $20 million to acquire a Japanese player’s rights — expired Oct. 31.
Speaking ahead of an MLB owners’ meeting Wednesday in Orlando, Dan Halem, the league’s chief legal officer, said a preliminary agreement has been reached with NPB but that it is awaiting approval from the union and a vote of MLB owners before it can be ratified. The union, concerned that uncertainty over Ohtani’s status could harm big league free agents, reportedly set a Monday deadline to reach agreement with MLB on the new system.
“I’m hopeful that we’ll have a new system in place in early December,” Halem told reporters.
Assuming an agreement is reached, once Ohtani is posted, it would open a 30-day window for teams to make their pitches and for Ohtani to choose his destination. By rule, teams’ offers are limited by what is available in their international bonus pools, ranging from a high of $3.535 million for the Texas Rangers down to $10,000 for Cleveland and Colorado, according to the Associated Press. The Washington Nationals have $300,000 available and are not considered to be among the teams most likely to land Ohtani.
“We’re not sure what the process even is at this point,” Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo said Wednesday, echoing the stance of many in the industry, “so until we know more about that, we’ll no-comment on it.”
With official bonuses and salaries not expected to vary widely from team to team, many observers expect Ohtani to make his decision based on other factors, such as teams’ relative chances of winning, their histories with foreign players and the Asian presence in their home markets (which could affect, for one thing, how much Ohtani can earn off the field through marketing and endorsement deals).
Among the teams widely seen as best positioned to land him are the Rangers, Los Angeles Dodgers, Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees and Seattle Mariners — but those are just guesses, as Ohtani himself has said little publicly about his intentions or his criteria for choosing a new team. The Dodgers nearly signed Ohtani coming out of high school in 2012, but he chose to remain in Japan.
Still, the most intriguing factor that could steer Ohtani’s future is the degree to which major league teams are willing to allow him to continue being a two-way player — something believed to be important to him as he prepares to move west.
“I’m interested to hear what the teams have to say,” Ohtani told the Los Angeles Times in September.
At least on a theoretical basis, many teams appear to have no qualms with allowing Ohtani to pursue both disciplines in the states, but most scouts value his arm over his bat, and it remains unknown the extent to which the team that ultimately signs him will be able to stomach the sight of its future ace running the bases and/or playing the outfield two or three days between starts.
“Babe Ruth did it, right?” Red Sox President Dave Dombrowski told reporters in Orlando. “I would say that it’s possible. … If you had somebody who was talented enough, why not?”
Logic would dictate that American League teams would hold an advantage over National League teams in their pursuit of Ohtani, as the presence of the designated hitter rule could mitigate the risk of allowing him to continue as a hitter. In Japan, where starters typically pitch just once a week, Ohtani usually served as designated hitter on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, prepared for his upcoming start on Friday and Saturday, pitched on Sunday and rested on Monday.
Some NL teams, however, may envision a different scenario in which, on certain days, Ohtani plays in the outfield or first base for eight innings, then moves to the mound to pitch the ninth as the closer.
Baseball still has not seen a true full-time, two-way player since Ruth gave up pitching nearly a century ago. But the atmosphere has never been more conducive to it, as the growing dependence on relievers has led teams to carry ever more pitchers on their roster, making positional versatility and flexibility critical components of roster-building. The Tampa Bay Rays drafted Louisville pitcher/first baseman Brendan McKay with the fourth overall pick in June and are allowing him to pursue both disciplines in the minors.
The possibilities for Ohtani, once he gets on the field, are endless and could require the sort of imagination and creativity for which baseball teams are not typically known. But first, someone has to acquire him — a transactional act that, unlike most offseason moves, will require its own sort of creativity and imagination.
Chelsea Janes contributed to this report in Orlando.