We’re now one step closer to Shohei Ohtani coming to the major leagues after the MLB Players Association signed off on a new posting system that was agreed to by MLB and Nippon Professional Baseball.
Here’s what we need to know right now: For this offseason, last year’s posting rules will be in play, which means the Nippon Ham Fighters would receive the maximum posting fee of $20 million. Once posted, probably in the next two weeks, Ohtani is then eligible to negotiate with any team, but he is subject to the international bonus pool money available to each team. The Texas Rangers and New York Yankees have the most money available -- $3.535 million for the Rangers and $3.5 million for the Yankees -- while 12 teams are limited to a maximum of $300,000 (including the Dodgers, Cubs, Astros, Cardinals, Nationals and Royals). The Twins ($3.245 million), Pirates ($2.266 million), Marlins ($1.74 million) and Mariners ($1.57 million) are the only other teams with more than $1 million to spend.
The money is what makes Ohtani’s situation different from those of the other Japanese stars to come over to the majors. Any team can afford the $20 million posting fee plus the small bonus, so the bidding won’t be limited to just the big-market teams. Under the international signing rules, if Ohtani had waited two more years until he turned 25, he wouldn’t be subject to the bonus pool caps, and given his 100 mph fastball and ability at the plate, he would receive a deal in excess of $100 million and likely close to $200 million.
So that tells us one thing: Ohtani isn’t motivated by money. The difference between a $3.5 million bonus and $300,000 bonus isn’t likely to be a critical factor in where he signs. He has repeatedly stressed the desire to test himself against the best competition, and that’s why he wants to come over now rather than wait. What we don’t know is how important is his desire to remain a two-way player.
The logical follow-up question: What would prevent a team from an under-the-table agreement with Ohtani? Say you give him the maximum signing bonus and then two months into his rookie season sign him to a seven-year, $125 million extension or something? The answer: I don’t know, although that is something MLB would clearly frown upon. Given the penalties just handed down on the Braves for their shenanigans in Latin America, any subterfuge with Ohtani could face severe consequences. Any extension would probably have to fall in line with those signed by similar players with limited major league experience -- in other words, far below $200 million.
The other question: Exactly how good is Ohtani? Dan Szymborski ran Ohtani’s major league equivalencies last week. And here are the numbers for 2016 (he missed part of 2017 with ankle and thigh injuries and made just five starts while DHing in 65 games):
Pitching: 11-3, 3.24 ERA, 133 1/3 IP, 146 SO, 51 BB, 10 HR
Hitting: .289/.356/.547, 22 HR in 342 AB
While U.S. scouts rate him much higher as a pitcher, the two-way ability is obviously there (although his 2017 numbers at the plate weren’t as strong, translating to a .265/.317/.460 line). Some teams no doubt will view him strictly as a pitcher who can do some pinch-hitting on the side, believing the game is simply too tough for a player to regularly go both ways. It’s unlikely any team would actually let him play the field between starts; in Japan, he last played in the field in 2014, appearing in six games in right field.
There has been a debate then, about which league is the better fit for Ohtani. In the American League, he could DH a couple of times a week between starts; of course, that limits him to teams that don’t already have a full-time DH. There’s also the question, however, of whether you let him bat when he starts on the mound. If the pitcher bats, you lose your DH for the entire game. Maybe that’s not a big issue for the two or three at-bats Ohtani gets, but it complicates matters when he’s pulled for a reliever.
That might mean he’s a better fit for the National League, where he can essentially pinch hit for the pitcher every game he doesn’t start. Think of the value Madison Bumgarner has provided the Giants. Over the past four years, he has hit .224/.272/.433 with 15 home runs in 263 at-bats. He has been worth 3.7 WAR at the plate, or about 1.0 WAR per season (on top of his value provided as a pitcher). The projections suggest Ohtani could provide even more value as a hitter than Bumgarner. As a designated hitter, Ohtani is less valuable, since the bar for a DH is much higher than for pitchers.
Of course, determining his value is up to the clubs. Ohtani just wants to play baseball. The next few weeks will see a spike in Ohtani fever. All 30 clubs will undoubtedly reach out to his agents, CAA Sports. Ohtani will be wined and dined. Where does he end up? Some speculation:
Los Angeles Dodgers -- The Dodgers have scouted Ohtani since high school. And in the past, they have had success with Japanese players, including Hiroki Kuroda and Kenta Maeda. We assume that cities with a large Japanese population might have an advantage in signing Ohtani, although we don’t know if that’s an important factor.
New York Yankees -- The lure of the pinstripes might be unavoidable. The bonus pool money at least helps a little bit, as does the fact that the Yankees’ leading DH candidate right now would be Jacoby Ellsbury. In other words, they’re one AL team that could entice him with some DH at-bats.
Texas Rangers -- The Rangers need pitching help, with the second-lowest projected pitching WAR for 2017, according to FanGraphs. How about a package deal in bringing back Yu Darvish and then signing Ohtani?
Seattle Mariners -- They need a starting pitcher and have a long history of signing Japanese players, from Ichiro Suzuki to Hisashi Iwakuma. Nelson Cruz is locked in at DH for another year, but Ohtani could get some DH time starting in 2019.
Minnesota Twins -- They have one of the larger bonus pools available, and general manager Thad Levine was in Texas when Darvish was there. They also need starting pitching to go with that offense. Similar to the Rangers, a Darvish-Ohtani package deal could come together.
Chicago Cubs -- With Jake Arrieta and John Lackey free agents, they’ll be signing somebody. Theo Epstein did a great job wooing Jon Lester before the 2015 season. Now that the Cubs are annual playoff participants, wooing Ohtani might be easier.
San Francisco Giants -- While they’re focusing on rebuilding their offense, they won’t turn away from Ohtani. Heck, this is one team that could actually use him in the outfield.
Where does Ohtani end up? Let's just say there's confidence in New York, with the New York Daily News saying Ohtani “to the Yankees seems like an inevitable conclusion after latest developments.”