The Case for Shohei in LA

Earlier, we made the case for Shohei Otani ending up in Seattle. Now, our Los Angeles contributor Andrew Packer tells us why it'll be the City of Angels, not emeralds, that hosts the Japanese sensation for the 2018 season.

Shohei Ohtani is the most exciting player in Major League Baseball and he’s not even signed to a team. With a fastball over 102 mph and the ability to hit a ball through a stadium dome (not hyperbole; actually happened) there hasn’t been a player like him in baseball since Babe Ruth. And considering the King of Crash played at a time when eating a hotdog on the mound was an acceptable thing to do, it’s safe to say there has never truly been a player like Ohtani.

The 23-year-old, 6’4” dual-weapon of the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters will decide on an American team in the next couple of weeks. He has his pick of the litter; any team would jump at the chance to sign him. His agents at CAA sent out a secretive questionnaire to all 30 clubs with major conditional concerns including everything from practice facilities to a team’s ability to work him in as both a pitcher and a slugger.

Most analysts concluded that Ohtani would for sure pick the Yankees; they’re a legendary franchise with enough cash to facilitate anything, and as an American League team they can make him the Designated Hitter on days he’s not starting on the mound.

But on Sunday it was announced that Ohtani had narrowed his choices down to seven franchises, and none of them sport “NY” on their cap. The remaining teams that still have a chance are the Cubs, Rangers, Mariners, Giants, Dodgers, Angels, and Padres.

“I know that our presentation was excellent,” said Yankees general manager Brian Cashman upon notification that Ohtani will not sign with the Yankees. “The feedback from that was outstanding. [But] I did get a sense that I can’t change that we’re a big market and I can’t change that we’re in the East.” From that statement one could safely conclude that Ohtani is looking for a small market on the West Coast.

It makes sense that Ohtani wouldn’t want a big market. In a 60 Minutes piece aired in April, two of his teammates in Japan who both previously played in the MLB said that he never goes out looking for glitz and glam. Despite being a ginormous star in his home country, most nights after a game, win or lose, the popular athlete heads back to the team dorms to relax.

But if he’s not interested in a big city, then why would the Cubs still be in contention for the young star? Chicago is one of the biggest markets in the league. However, the only coast they’re on is Lake Michigan.

The fact that five of the other teams are all on the West Coast indicates that proximity to Japan does matter to Ohtani; the only team along the Pacific not on the list is the Oakland A’s, arguably the smallest of those markets. So if market size doesn’t factor in as much as Cashman purported, and geography does, then perhaps the chance to play in the city with the strongest history of accommodating Japanese players will be the deciding factor.

Los Angeles has the largest Japanese-American population in mainland U.S.A. That may have been the reason Hideo Nomo first joined with the Dodgers when he came from Japan in 1994. Nomo, that year’s Rookie of the Year, quickly became the first Japanese-born player to become a sensation in Major League Baseball.

Even though he was only the second to enter the league after Masanori Murkakmi in 1965, Nomo clearly opened the door to a surge of Japanese baseball players in America, especially on the Dodgers. Other players to have tremendous success in L.A. include Kaz Ishii, Takashi Saito, Hiroki Kuroda, Kenta Maeda, and Yu Darvish (Game 7 notwithstanding). If a pedigree of success acclimating Japanese ball players is important to the young and modest Ohtani, then the Dodgers’ history gives them a big edge over at least three of the other four West Coast teams in contention.

It doesn’t end at former or current players, either. The Dodgers are loaded with people of Japanese descent across the various staff and front-office positions: soft-tissue specialist, director of team travel, manager of public relations, and one of their managers all speak Japanese and share that heritage. You have to assume that can only help ease any trans-Pacific transition.

But coming to play in America from a land as distant as Japan would be daunting for any player regardless of the situation. However, Ohtani has expressed an extreme eagerness for the opportunity to go up against the very best. Specifically, the homerun derby winner wants to see how he fares against Dodgers’ star pitcher, Clayton Kershaw.

“Just thinking about facing him makes me really excited,” said Ohtani on 60 Minutes. “I could just tell he’s such a great pitcher through the TV screen.” Yes, he obviously wouldn’t face Kershaw if he played on the same team, but the opportunity to test his might against the pitcher would always be there.

The other player he namedropped in that interview, the one he’d like to face most as a pitcher, is none other than Bryce Harper. Though Harper still has another year under contract with the Nationals, many signs point to him signing with the Dodgers in 2019. LA can afford him, and it would bring Harper closer to his hometown of Las Vegas. This would provide the same type of opportunity for upping Ohtani’s pitching game as Kerhsaw offers for his hitting.

Indeed, Kershaw and Harper would take up a lot of the Dodgers’ bankroll. But Ohtani deciding to come to the MLB at 23 years old instead of 25 (the age necessary for upper-tier contracts) indicates that big money is not his priority.

If that weren’t the case, then the Dodgers could be at a disadvantage. They’re designated with the league minimum signing bonus for international players of a mere $300,000 at this time, as opposed to the Rangers who have spent little enough in recent years to throw Ohtani a bonus of a few million. However, his agency (CAA) is arguably the biggest agency in the world, so if he’s interested in major endorsement deals he couldn’t be better situated than in Los Angeles.

Playing for a National League franchise does still pose an obstacle for Ohtani’s desire to both fire his cannon and smash windshields in the parking lot. Again, that particular condition of his puts any AL team at an advantage. But the Dodgers have a creative management team; they’d undoubtedly find a way to use him in the outfield on days when he’s not pitching.

Assuming the Dodgers can convince Ohtani that he can fit right in, then why wouldn’t he want to play for the team that nearly won the most recent World Series? That may be a lot of pressure for any young recruit, but the Dodgers have the privilege of not needing Ohtani to be their number 1 starting pitcher; he would be number 2 behind Kershaw.     

And, let’s face it: you can’t beat the weather in L.A. Not only does So Cal get nearly perfect weather every day, the conditions in Dodger Stadium are some of the most favorable for pitchers in the MLB. Hokkaido, conversely, has about the same climate as Green Bay, Wisconsin. Ohtani already throws a 102.5 fastball, but he thinks he can do even better. Regular practice in L.A. would give him the best opportunity to prove it.

When he was 18, the Dodgers were one of only three MLB teams that tried to recruit Ohtani. He decided to stay in Japan. Now he’s ready for the big leagues. You’ve got to figure their relative familiarity with each other works in the Dodgers’ favor. If Ohtani is looking for a comfortable home away from home to stake his claim, he can’t do much better than in Los Angeles (the real L.A., of course; not that fake Anaheim one).

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