Shohei Ohtani's the biggest name in this winter's free-agent class and the sport's biggest mystery. Here's what you need to know as the Japanese Babe Ruth makes his way to the majors.
Who is he, and why do teams want him so badly?
Ohtani is a 23-year-old, 6-foot-5 right-handed pitcher who throws 100 mph with regularity while also owning a plus splitter and plus slider. While he made just five starts in 2017 because of an ankle injury that required surgery after the season, in 2016 he went 10-4 with a 1.86 ERA and 174 strikeouts and just four home runs allowed in 140 innings. As a pitcher, he'd be considered the top prospect in baseball -- but he also moonlights as a DH. Over the past two seasons, he has hit .324 with 30 home runs in 525 at-bats. He also possesses better-than-average running speed to first base.
What kind of competition has he faced in Japan?
The caliber of play in Japan is generally considered a notch below MLB, but better than Triple-A. One way to look at Ohtani's potential is to look at the star pitchers who have come over to the majors. Most have fared pretty well since Hideo Nomo first joined the Dodgers in 1995:
Nomo: 3.15 ERA in Japan, 4.24 in MLB
Hideki Irabu: 3.55 ERA in Japan, 5.15 in MLB
Daisuke Matsuzaka: 2.96 ERA in Japan, 4.45 in MLB
Hiroki Kuroda: 3.55 ERA in Japan, 3.45 in MLB
Yu Darvish: 1.99 ERA in Japan, 3.42 in MLB
Hisashi Iwakuma: 3.25 ERA in Japan, 3.42 in MLB
Masahiro Tanaka: 2.30 ERA in Japan, 3.56 in MLB
Kenta Maeda: 2.39 ERA in Japan, 3.80 in MLB
Irabu was the big flop and Matsuzaka is viewed as a disappointment, but remember he was pretty good his first two seasons with the Red Sox before getting injured. In terms of pure stuff, Ohtani matches or surpasses Darvish and Tanaka.
Could he really be a two-way player in the majors?
He has been successful doing both in Japan, and while most scouts evaluate him higher as a pitcher, the feeling is the bat and power are also MLB-caliber. Buster Olney wrote about some of the difficulties in trying to do both in the majors -- after all, even Babe Ruth eventually gave up pitching to focus solely on hitting, and that was 100 years ago. One thing to keep in mind: In Japan, starting pitchers generally start once per week instead of once every five or six days. That would make the two-way transition even more difficult, as he'll have fewer days off between starts.
When can he post and when is he coming to the U.S.?
Ohtani should be officially posted within the next two weeks in order to come over for the 2018 season. Once posted, teams have 21 days to negotiate a contract with him.
How much is the posting fee?
The maximum posting fee is $20 million, which goes from the MLB team to Ohtani's Japanese team, the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters.
Once he posts, who can negotiate with him?
Any team willing to pay the $20 million posting fee. All 30 MLB teams should be willing to pay the posting fee, which means all 30 teams could conceivably try to negotiate a contract with Ohtani.
Which teams are the best fits for him?
Every team would be a fit. Who doesn't want a young pitcher who has already dominated at a high level and who can pinch-hit or DH on the side? Because of limitations on international signings, Ohtani's agent, Nez Balelo, asked teams not to submit financial terms, but did send a letter to all 30 teams asking them to provide information in English and Japanese on a variety of issues such as medical staffs, resources to help Ohtani's transition to a new country, facilities, how the club wants to use Ohtani, and so on.
One general manager has already come out and said he would use Ohtani as a two-way player. Seattle's Jerry Dipoto said the club could play Nelson Cruz in the outfield when Ohtani DHs. Seattle also has a large Japanese population and has had success with Japanese players in the past. The Rangers also have an opening at DH and are in desperate need of a starting pitcher. The Dodgers have scouted Ohtani since high school and play in a favorable market, although they lack the DH option when he's not pitching. The Yankees already have Tanaka and don't have a clear option at DH. The Giants could take a risk and let Ohtani play some outfield when he's not starting, although he hasn't played there since 2014.
What's the most money he can get, and who could give it to him?
Teams are limited in the signing bonus they can offer by the amount of money they have available in their international bonus pool. The Rangers ($3.53 million) and the Yankees ($3.5 million) have the most available, with the Twins also over $3 million. The Pirates, Marlins and Mariners are the only other teams with more than $1 million available while 12 teams, including the Dodgers and Cubs, have a max of $300,000.
What's the length of his contract when he signs with a team?
Aside from the bonus money, Ohtani would then sign a standard minor league contract and would make the major league minimum as a rookie, then be subject to standard raises before arbitration and eligible for free agency after six seasons of service time.
Japanese stars have gotten huge contracts before; why can't he?
Under current MLB rules, an international player isn't free to negotiate as an unrestricted free agent unless he's 25 years old, so Ohtani is restricted to the rules on international signings that limit the dollars on his contract. Tanaka and Darvish were older and came over under different rules, allowing them to negotiate much larger initial contracts.
Why is he coming this year instead of waiting?
Ohtani has said he simply wants to challenge himself against the highest level of competition, even if it means receiving much less money in doing so. Indeed, if he'd waited two more years, until he's 25, he would certainly have received a long-term contract in excess of $100 million.
Could a major league team give him a contract extension or find a way to give him more money as soon as he joins?
This is where everything gets cloudy. Teams won't be allowed to negotiate some under-the-table deal in which Ohtani is immediately signed to a huge long-term extension. There is some feeling that the recent punishment given the Braves for illegal activities in Latin America should be viewed as a warning in signing Ohtani: no tricks. Any extension signed early in his career would probably have to be similar to others signed by young major leaguers and not akin to a mega-contract given to a veteran free agent.
Why is this situation so much more complicated than any other situation?
In one sense, Ohtani has said money doesn't matter. That means he essentially gets to pick the team he wants to play for, which probably means a team willing to give him a chance at being a two-way player. That all adds up to a fascinating set of circumstances. Don't rule out an NL team. Ohtani could still bat when he starts on the mound, pinch-hit on days he doesn't pitch and maybe play occasionally in the outfield and still get 300-350 plate appearances. An AL team would have to determine whether to let him hit on days he pitches, which would mean not utilizing a DH for that game. So his usage becomes complicated no matter the league he ends up in. Aside from all that, this is still a young player who will have to prove himself under intense scrutiny and media coverage.