The Case for Shohei Otani in Seattle

The biggest story of the MLB offseason is superstar free agent prospect Shohei Otani. Every team wants him, but only one will get him. Below, Kit Boyer explains why that team might just be Seattle.

The offseason has turned into some strange recruitment playoffs/star pitcher sweepstakes and I am completely for it. More importantly, the Mariners are still in the running, and I’d argue at the front. This could be like getting Ichiro and King Felix back, in one player, as a free agent, while paying him like home grown talent. It is, to say the in the least, exciting.

Perhaps you don’t know to what I’m referring. There isn’t a Mariners’ farmhand who matches that description and you certainly don’t recall Giancarlo Stanton pitching (and his contract is like a thousand gold plated bricks tied to his ankle). It is possible that you’ve missed the NPB phenom that is Shohei Ohtani. That’s alright because he’s going to be all over your screen soon, and I’d argue that it’s going to be in Navy Blue and Northwest Green.

Let’s start with the man himself: Shohei Otani hails from Oshu in Iwate prefecture, a city comparable in population at least to Evansville, Indiana. This is where he played his high school baseball, and something of a big deal as many more prestigious schools were recruiting him. After setting the high school record for fastest pitch at 99 mph (160 km/hr) he announced that he wanted to go directly to the MLB. His current team, the Nippon Ham Fighters, still used their first round pick on him anyway; he was just too promising to pass up. Nippon Ham felt they could persuade Ohtani to stay and play in the NPB as a way to grow as player in a more comfortable environment closer to his family.

Also on the Fighter’s side, they had been the team of Ohtani’s boyhood hero Yu Darvish. Better yet, they were willing to acquiesce to Shohei’s main request to be a two way player. The Fighters gave Ohtani Darvish’s old number (11) and helped Ohtani grow as both pitcher and hitter. Shohei gave them some of the NPB’s most exciting moments (see fastest pitch in the league at 102.5 mph) and led them to the Japan Series in 2016, which they won.

Ohtani is a completely unique talent, the sort that hasn’t been seen since the early days of American Baseball: a true two way player. He’s built like Justin Verlander, has the same ability to lead a rotation, and throws just as hard with all the decent secondary offerings. He’s even had peak Verlander like seasons, he’s just done it at ages 21 and 22 versus 26-28. That in and of itself is something to be excited about.

The M’s would have Paxton, Ohtani, Felix, and Leake as their first four and have some flexibility in the five spot. That would give Seattle a few more wins and boost their chances at an AL wild card. Here’s the thing though: the kid can hit. He may not hit like The Kid, but he’s no slouch. Based on available ZIPs projections, Ohtani figures to hit like Tampa Bay stalwart Evan Longoria. Decent average, decent power, decent on base.

Where Ohtani wildly outperforms Longo, though, is between the bases. He’s been clocked home to first at as fast as 3.8 seconds. That’s just a hair slower than Billy Hamilton & Byron Buxton and darn near a second faster than the MLB average. For a pitcher to hit like a beloved and above average first baseman is like being Bryce Harper with Billy Hamilton’s speed.

While I know that pitchers don’t generally hit in the AL there is a lot that can be done to get Shohei the at bats he so desperately wants. The Mariners have already said they’d play Nelson Cruz in the outfield sometimes to get Ohtani in at DH. That makes both players happy and keeps both bats in the line up. Shohei could spell Nelson if need be which is a little less fire power but also helps preserve everyone a little. Scott Servais could get a little funky (at least for the AL) and do more pinch hitting as Ohtani plays an average to above average right field. Finally my personal favorite option (and Ohtani’s) would be to let him start some games in the field on his off days. This keeps Ohtani happy, keeps Cruz’s glove (and legs) out of the field, and fully utilizes the uniqueness of Ohtani’s skill set. It’s most likely that the final recipe would be some combination of all three choices, but Jerry Dipoto is not afraid of doing things differently and neither is Ohtani.

However this all hinges on if Shohei Ohtani chooses to play for the Mariners. There was a moment not long ago that it could have been any of the 30 MLB teams, a moment that was all of two weeks ago when Ohtani’s representation released a memo asking all interested teams to submit answers to the following seven questions:

1) An evaluation of Shohei’s talent as a pitcher and/or a hitter;

2) Player development, medical, training and player performance philosophies and capabilities;

3) Major League, Minor League, and Spring Training facilities;

4) Resources for Shohei’s cultural assimilation;

5) A detailed plan for integrating Shohei into the organization;

6) Why the city and franchise are a desirable place to play;

7) Relevant marketplace characteristics.

All 30 teams got their chance to weigh in and Ohtani has narrowed the field to seven teams; the Dodgers, Cubs, Rangers, Giants, Angels, Padres, and Mariners. We don’t know any of these teams’ answers nor any indication of why Ohtani has selected these seven. Shohei has indicated a preference for smaller markets and West Coast, but that is clearly not a deal breaker with the Dodgers, Cubs, and Rangers all clearly not qualifying for at least one of those. I still think that despite some advantages the other six teams might hold the Mariners are going to be his final choice and I’ve got some good reasons why.

This is a team where Ohtani can make a big impact right away while facing off against some of the best competition in the league. Ohtani asked to be posted (i.e., freed to sign with a team outside of Japan) at this point because he wants to test himself against the best. He’s forgoing lots of money to do so. He wants to see a high level of competition and the M’s can give it to him.

The Mariners play against the reigning World Series Champion Astros and Mike Trout 18 times a year. I also wouldn’t sleep on the A’s pitching staff for interesting duels and the Rangers can and have gone on some real tears. Simply by joining the Mariners Otani helps shake up the AL West and make it more competitive. He might get that out of the Giants but they may also have to land Stanton to play catch up with Arizona and Colorado.

Another factor could be the newly hired Director of High Performance, Dr. Lorena Martin. MLB baseball is pretty far behind other major sports in terms of training science and optimizing player health but teams are finally making it a priority and the Mariners showed they’re near the head of the class by signing Dr. Martin. She has worked with multiple world class organizations and takes a holistic approach to player health, something alluded to in two of Ohtani’s memo questions.

Basketball, hockey, and especially soccer have realized that player usage and all aspects of training are the next frontier of sports. This type of outlook has already been embraced by the NPB and will be a way for a team to distinguish itself in the Ohtani selection process. Dr. Martin is looking to help athletes safely push their limits to new performance levels and could conceivably help Shohei reach his ceiling on both sides of the ball. If the Mariners can commit to that ideal the way Nippon Ham did, Ohtani will sign on in a heartbeat.

Which brings me to the team’s established pedigree working with Japanese players. The Mariners have a long history with Japanese players starting in 1996, and while they’re no longer the owners one would also be foolish to overlook Nintendo’s lasting influence. The Japanese owners strengthened the trans-Pacific pipeline and helped the team gain legitimacy across the Pacific.

Perhaps owing to that legacy, the Mariners have a proven apparatus in place to help Ohtani make the transition to the MLB. Let’s start with the most recent example of Hisashi Iwakuma: he was on the team last year, and has since been extended a non-roster invitee spot in spring training. The Mariners’ organization has been working with a Japanese speaking pitcher and all the coaches, translators, etc are all still in place for Ohtani (and Kuma) to hit the ground running.

The translation issue is a bigger deal than some realize; a lot of very precise concepts have to be effectively communicated. You also can’t gloss over the fact the active catchers have experience working with a Japanese pitcher.

The other obvious example is Ichiro Suzuki. Remember how electric the Mariners became when Ichiro arrived, how much his play jump started the team, and the roving packs of Japanese media? That is the minimum realistic expectation for Ohtani. The Mariners were savvy enough to handle that in 2001 and Dipoto has been planning for at least a year for the same type of impact.

The team can handle the transition and so can the town. Seattle and the surrounding environs have a large Japanese population and long history of meshing cultures. While not the largest Japanese population in the USA, the Puget Sound area also has the mountains and more intimate feel of Shohei’s home town Oshu while still providing everything a world class city has to offer… and a shorter flight for those visits back home.

Seattle also has an amazingly dedicated and loving fan base. We loved Ichiro. King Felix has his court. The Kid got his statue. Edgar has his way (and a coaching position). Everyone still loves the Kuma hats. You can even look outside baseball to the 12th Man and the still bitter mourning of losing the Sonics. When the Northwest warms it’s heart for you, it’s forever. For a player who has said that he wants to measure his success by the applause of the fans, there is no better place to be.

Shohei Ohtani hasn’t said much to the media in Japan and even less here in the US. Even if he had gushed about a particular team, it’d still be impossible to know exactly what motivates the choices an individual person makes. When someone like Shoehei comes along, though, you’ve at least got to make an educated guess, and the Mariners are mine. They have everything he needs, and reside in a city that offers exactly the right amount of exposure and adulation. I like the Emerald City’s chances.

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