When I wrote last week about the Twins’ quest to sign an Ace pitcher, you may have noticed one name conspicuously absent: Shohei Ohtani.
Maybe you’re not familiar with Ohtani, though if you pay any attention to baseball news, you’ve probably heard of him. The 23-year-old phenom has been dubbed “The Japanese Babe Ruth,” not so much because of his power, but because he’s a two-way player who both pitches and bats — and he’s really good. As a member of the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters in NPB’s Pacific League, Ohtani’s won awards for being the league’s best pitcher, best batter, and MVP. He also won the equivalent of the World Series in Japan in 2016.
Having already accomplished basically everything in NPB, Ohtani has expressed his desire to come play in MLB in 2018, and it appears he will indeed be posted.
However, Ohtani is an extremely unique free agent in a unique position. Despite having to compete with the Dodgers and the Yankees and every other team (they’re basically all interested), the Twins may have a better chance at landing Ohtani than you might think.
Let’s look at what makes Ohtani’s position so unique and the Twins’ chances of signing him.
International bonus pool limitations
Shohei Ohtani is only 23 year’s old, and he’s not American or Canadian. Those facts are very important, because it means he’s subject to several limitations: he can only sign a minor league deal with any team — meaning he’ll only make the major league minimum if on the big league roster in 2018 — and any signing bonus he’s given is subject to international bonus pool limitations.
In other words, most of the money Ohtani gets (at least initially) will be from the signing bonus, and teams only have limited amounts of international signing bonus money to offer.
And wouldn’t you know it — the Twins currently have $3,245,000 left in their international signing bonus pool, which is the third most of all MLB teams. They trail only the Rangers, who have $3,535,000 left, and, ugh, the Yankees, who have $3.25 million. No other team has more than $3 million left to offer.
If Ohtani just waited until he was 25, he’d be able to sign any contract without limitations, except for the posting system.
The posting system mess
When players come from NPB (Nippon Professional Baseball) or KBO (Korea Baseball Organization), they have to go through a posting system. The purpose of the posting system is to protect the NPB and KBO from having MLB steal away their best native talents for nothing. Under the system, a MLB team has to pay a NPB or KBO team directly in a bidding-type process to sign one of their players.
Under the NPB posting system, MLB teams bid a maximum of $20 million to negotiate with a posted player, only actually paying if they’re the team who ends up signing him. Previously, there was no cap on bidding amount, and whatever team bid the most got exclusive rights to negotiate with the posted player. That’s what happened in 2006, when the Boston Red Sox bid $51 millon just for the exclusive right to negotiate with pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka. Under that system, smaller market teams like the Twins basically had no chance at signing NPB or KBO players, so the system was changed to be more fair.
Except — and here’s where it gets really interesting — the newer posting system actually expired at the end of October this year. NPB and MLB haven’t agreed to a new one yet, although some anonymous sources have claimed the two leagues are close to agreeing to allow Ohtani to be posted under the $20 million max-big system while they work to ratify a new one.
But it’s not quite a done deal yet. There’s still a small chance Ohtani will not be posted this year, or that he’ll be posted under different rules.
What does Shohei Ohtani want?
If one thing is clear here, it’s that Shohei Ohtani doesn’t seem to care about money. If he waited just two more years to be posted, he wouldn’t be subject to international signing limitations, and some think he could get a contract as big as $200 million or even $300 million.
But Ohtani doesn’t want to wait for the payout. He wants to come to MLB now. Many teams are interested in him, and he’ll basically have his choice of where to go. If not money, what does Ohtani want? No one is really sure.
One thing Ohtani seems to want is to bat. And pitch. He wants to remain a two-way player if he can. It makes sense, especially given his history. After graduating from high school in Japan in 2012, Ohtani originally said he was going play in the US right away and not play NPB at all (meaning he wouldn’t even have to deal with the posting system). Several MLB teams were interested in signing him, including the Rangers, Red Sox, Yankees, and more. The Fighters drafted Ohtani anyway, not expecting to sign him, but after a month-long negotiation, Ohtani signed. Why? Reportedly because the Fighters promised Ohtani he could continue to pitch and hit. He would probably not be able to do that if he went straight into MiLB.
You might think wanting to hit and pitch would make Ohtani lean towards a National League team, but it’s actually the opposite. Hitting as a pitcher would still limit Ohtani to hitting only every fifth day. Ohtani wants to pitch and hit several times a week, and the most realistic way of doing that is by being a pitcher and a designated hitter (he can also play outfield, but there’s a greater injury risk there).
So would the Twins be willing to let Ohtani pitch and hit as a DH? According to Thad Levine on MLB Network this morning, yes.
“I think we’d let him do whatever he damn well pleases to come to Minnesota.” – @Twins’ Thad Levine on Shohei Otani pitching vs. hitting. #MLBNHotStove https://t.co/hOa2LNQaDE— MLB Network PR (@MLBNetworkPR) November 13, 2017
However, the Twins are far from the only team who’s said they would allow Ohtani to pursue his dreams of being a two-way player. Other considerations will have to influence his choice too.
One of those considerations may be how competitive a team is, but Ohtani’s desires here seem unusual too. “There have been rumors that he would prefer to be part of a rebuilding effort rather than joining an established power,” ESPN’s Buster Olney recently noted, “but nobody really knows if that means he’d pick, say, the Twins over the Dodgers.”
Who knows if there are other things Ohtani is looking for. Location? Coaches? Teammates? Where his home ballpark will be? The color of the uniforms?!
Ahead of this week’s GM Meetings in Orlando, FL, ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick asked 40 MLB GMs and other front office personal about a number of topics, including where they thought Shohei Ohtani would end up playing next year. Unfortunately, none of the respondents said the Twins, with votes coming out Yankees 7½, Dodgers 7½, Rangers 5, Nippon Ham Fighters 4, Mariners 4, Padres 1, Cubs 1, Astros 1, Giants 1, Red Sox 1, and the rest undecided.
But that doesn’t mean the Twins don’t have a chance at acquiring Ohtani, or even a good chance at it. As noted, the playing field is relatively level when it comes to money, and the Twins have some other factors possibly going for them, like being an AL team on the cusp of contending that is also willing to let him hit and pitch.
Is that enough? Do the Twins have something else to offer Ohtani too? Heck, should the Twins even be going after Ohtani at all? The picture should become clearer in the coming weeks, and it will be an exciting story to follow.