By Cliff Corcoran
Shohei Ohtani narrowed his list of Major League suitors to seven finalists on Sunday. He and his agents will spend the coming week holding in-person meetings with representatives of each of those seven teams as the two-way Japanese star attempts to find the best place to deploy his talents in the United States. The seven finalists include five of the six teams located on the West Coast (the A's being the exception) as well as the Rangers, who can offer the largest bonus at $3.535 million, and the Cubs.
Curiously, other than that cluster of West Coast teams, there is no clear preference in evidence in this collection of finalists. Despite word that Ohtani prefers a smaller market, Los Angeles and Chicago both made the list. Similarly, Kenta Maeda's presence on the Dodgers undermines the rumor that Ohtani doesn't want to go to a team that already has a notable Japanese player. A team's near-term chance of winning also seems to be irrelevant. The Cubs and Dodgers battled in the National League Championship Series in October, but the other five finalists all had losing records this season. The Giants tied for the worst record in baseball in 2017. The Padres have had seven straight losing seasons. The size of his potential bonus also seems irrelevant. The Rangers had the most international bonus money to offer, but four of the other five teams with $1 million or more to spend are out of the running, while five teams with $300,000 or less available are still in.
One thing I find particularly surprising about these seven finalists is that there is no apparent preference for the American or National League. Given that Ohtani is not only a #pitcherwhorakes, but a legitimate slugger independent of his mound work, I fully expected him to prefer the league in which he can be a designated hitter on his off-days. MLB.com's Mike Petriello argued over the weekend that the National League could hold some interest for Ohtani because he'd be guaranteed to get at-bats on the days he pitches, whereas an AL team may ultimately opt to end his days as a hitter, and he would have more pinch-hitting opportunities. However, even Petriello's math suggests that Ohtani could expect to get 86 percent more plate appearances in a projected AL season, based on his Japanese schedule of serving as a designated hitter in the games that don't border on one of his mound starts.
This is where things get even more interesting. Although ostensibly a pitcher/outfielder, Ohtani hasn't appeared in the outfield since 2014, and he played just eight games in the pastures that year. One would assume that the 6-foot-4 Ohtani could also get some playing time at first base, given that pitchers are infielders who often have to cover first base. However, that would require learning a new position in addition to attempting to adjust to a new league, at a new level, as both a hitter and pitcher, while also adjusting to a new country with a very different culture and a different language. Given his complete lack of experience in the outfield the last three years, one might be able to say the same about any near-term efforts to play Ohtani there, as well. That still seems like a huge leg up for the three AL teams remaining (Angels, Mariners and Rangers), but Ohtani is clearly open to whatever the four NL teams proposed in terms of his playing time and positional deployment.
I'll take a closer look at how Ohtani might fit on each of those seven teams in a moment, but before I do, it's also worth considering just what any of them might be able to expect out of Ohtani in terms of playing time on either side of the ball. To begin with, Ohtani has neither played in more than 104 games nor made more than 382 plate appearances in a season.
As previously alluded to, it has been Ohtani's habit not to play at all the day before and the day after making a start on the mound. That was easier to do in Nippon Professional Baseball, as he would start every Sunday and every Monday was an off-day, but it will likely continue to be his preference in MLB. Certainly, one would expect him to need a full day of rest after a start, and it seems likely that a willingness to give him that day off before a start will be a key selling point for whichever team he ultimately picks. That would mean that Ohtani would DH (or play the field) only twice in between starts unless his start abuts an off-day (of which there will be more in 2018 per the new Collective Bargaining Agreement). Thus he would be in the lineup three out of every five games, with a few exceptions, or roughly 100 games total in the season, assuming full health.
He'd also have to come out of the lineup when replaced by a relief pitcher (costing an AL team its DH in that situation), so he typically wouldn't even play a full game in one of those three days in the lineup (Ohtani had 13 complete games on the mound in the last four years in Japan). If he averages four plate appearances per game as a DH/fielder and three plate appearances per game when pitching, that schedule would likely see him max out at about 370 plate appearances on the season. Meanwhile, Ohtani's non-pitching position would have to be filled by another player three out of every five days on NL teams. AL teams would only need another DH two out of every three days, but they would also need to have viable pinch-hitters lineup on days he starts.
On the mound, Ohtani has never made more than 24 starts in a season (his total from 2014), and he hasn't thrown more than 160 2/3 innings (his total from 2015). In 2017, he made just five starts and threw just 25 1/3 innings due to the ankle injury that kept him from participating in the World Baseball Classic in March. He would thus need to be stretched out to shoulder a full MLB starter's workload of 30-plus starts and 200-odd innings, and there is risk there given his history in Japanese youth baseball, including the celebrated but often punishing Summer Koshien high school tournament. Of course, the upside here is that, if a team decides to shut down Ohtani at 180 innings, it can make him a full-time hitter thereafter, rather than lose him entirely.
As for the quality of his performance in either role, it remains to be seen how quickly or completely he can adjust to what is inarguably a better league. For the record, he hit .326/.411/.570 with 30 home runs in 613 plate appearances with the Nippon-Ham Fighters over the past two years and went 36-13 with a 2.25 ERA, 1.01 WHIP and 10.8 strikeouts per nine innings in his past three "full" seasons on the mound. Don't expect him to reach those heights right away, if ever, in the Majors, but the sky is nonetheless the limit for the 23-year-old stud.
All of that said, here's a quick look at how Ohtani might fit with his seven finalists, starting with the NL clubs.
Maximum bonus: $300,000
The Cubs need to add a couple of starting pitchers this offseason and hope that Ohtani can be one of them, but things are awfully crowded on the other side of the ball. Then again, that depth would complement Ohtani's status as a part-time player, and manager Joe Maddon excels at juggling multiposition players. Still, one wonders if landing Ohtani might finally convince the Cubs to deal fellow would-be-DH Kyle Schwarber to an AL team. Doing so could land them the other starter they need.
Los Angeles Dodgers
Maximum bonus: $300,000
The Dodgers are another team with enough depth to complement Ohtani in the outfield and a manager adept at juggling that deep bench. The Dodgers also have depth in their rotation, but their top arms skew left-handed, so adding Ohtani, who bats left but throws right, could add some balance there, while the overflow could help stock the bullpen, the one place the team lacks depth heading into the offseason. If there's truth behind the rumors, the Dodgers -- a large-market, NL team with a Japanese starter already in the rotation -- are the long shot on this list. Then again, they are the only team that can offer Ohtani a manager who was born in Japan to a Japanese mother, as well as countrymen in the clubhouse in Maeda and massage therapist Yosuke Nakajima.
San Diego Padres
Maximum bonus: $300,000
There are those who are optimistic about the Padres' rebuild in the short term. I am not among them, but Ohtani may be. The Padres likely represent the lowest-pressure environment for Ohtani, given the lower expectations for the team and the laid-back atmosphere of San Diego. However, this is the one place that Ohtani would instantly become the biggest star on the team, which could come with pressures of its own, even if they wouldn't compare to those of being the biggest star on the Dodgers or Cubs. There would be no playing time concerns here: Both the rotation and left field are wide-open for Ohtani. Expect the Padres to bring front-office adviser Hideo Nomo to their meeting with Ohtani.
San Francisco Giants
Maximum bonus: $300,000
The Giants had their meeting with Ohtani on Monday, sending a large contingent including CEO Larry Baer, president of baseball operations Brian Sabean, general manager Bobby Evans, assistant GM Jeremy Shelley, manager Bruce Bochy and catcher Buster Posey to Los Angeles to meet with Ohtani and his agents. Bochy has said that he would like to give Ohtani starts in an outfield corner (the Giants have a big hole in left right now) to try to get him close to 400 at-bats. As bad as the Giants were this past season, they could sell Ohtani on a strong rebound based on their recent glory, even-year magic, concurrent pursuit of Giancarlo Stanton (which wouldn't block Ohtani in the outfield given Hunter Pence's decline) and deep rotation. The Giants also have a Japanese-born bullpen catcher in Taira Uematsu, and bench coach Hensley Meulens, who played three seasons in NPB, speaks Japanese.
Los Angeles Angels
Maximum bonus: $150,000
The Angels could be a legitimate postseason contender with a full season of Justin Upton in left field and Ohtani contributing on both sides of the ball. The idea of a Mike Trout-Ohtani-Upton right-left-right sequence in the Angels' lineup three out of every five games is an exciting one for more than just Angels fans. Signing Ohtani would mean benching Albert Pujols twice a week, but the time for that appears to have come (far better that than making the 38-year-old Pujols play the field).
Maximum bonus: $1,570,500
The Mariners can offer the second-largest bonus and are believed to be the current favorite to land Ohtani, but being the favorite prior to Sunday didn't do the Yankees much good. The truth is, we have no idea what to expect. The Mariners have a long successful history with Japanese players, dating back to closer Kazuhiro Sasaki, the 2000 AL Rookie of the Year, highlighted by Ichiro Suzuki's 12 years with the team, and continuing with righty Hisashi Iwakuma, who was re-signed to a Minor League deal last week. They also have a Japanese trainer in Yoshihiro Nakazawa. Adding Ohtani would force Nelson Cruz into an outfield corner or onto the bench twice a week, but that seems a small price to pay for what Ohtani can offer. Also worth noting, the Mariners have the longest active playoff drought in baseball and are one of just two Major League teams (and the only one of Ohtani's finalists) never to make the World Series. If Ohtani can help snap either drought, he'll be a legend in Seattle, which has the largest Japanese population, by percentage, of the seven cities on this list, just edging out San Francisco.
Maximum bonus: $3.535 million
The Rangers have been actively stocking their pitching staff this offseason, signing righty Doug Fister to a two-year deal last week and adding lefty Mike Minor with an eye toward returning him to the rotation, on Monday. The Rangers will also give Matt Bush a chance to transition to the rotation and thus could offer Ohtani a six-man rotation situation that would keep his pitching workload more in line with what he's accustomed to. That would also give him more opportunity to appear at DH or in the field between rotation turns, and there's plenty of room in the Texas lineup for him with Mike Napoli now a free agent. The Rangers don't have any notable native Japanese players, coaches or executives. However, they did employ Yu Darvish for the last six seasons, so they do have some experience and success in supporting an NPB import and his transition to the Majors and the U.S., and it may not be insignificant that Darvish, who also played for the Fighters, was Ohtani's idol growing up. If I had to guess, I'd put the Rangers right there with the Mariners and Giants as the leaders in this competition.
* * *
Cliff Corcoran is a Sports on Earth contributor and a regular guest analyst on MLB Network. An editor or contributor to 13 books about baseball, including seven Baseball Prospectus annuals, he spent the last 10 seasons covering baseball for SI.com and has also written for USA Today and SB Nation, among others.