It’s no secret the Twins are looking for an ace pitcher to add to their rotation. While there are a couple free agents available (or, mainly, just Yu Darvish), those guys are likely going to cost more than they should and than the Twins can realistically afford. Trading is an option, but any proven ace will demand a lot in return. However, there is a third potential option: Japanese phenom Shohei Ohtani.
MLB, the MLBPA, and NPB were able to agree to a new posting system at the last minute, meaning Shohei Ohtani will be coming to MLB in 2018. Where Ohtani will end up, we don’t know — but the Twins have as realistic shot at landing him as any other team.
Here’s where I get to be a Debbie Downer: Despite the hype, Ohtani probably won’t be an ace pitcher in the major leagues. (Sorry.)
In NPB — Nippon Professional Baseball, the professional league in Japan — Ohtani is certainly an ace. He has a career 2.52 ERA over five seasons therewith a 1.076 WHIP and 10.3 SO/9. That’s ridiculous. However, NPB isn’t MLB. Obviously. The average hitter in MLB is better than the average hitter in NPB. It’s not realistic to expect Ohtani to put up the same numbers against MLB hitters.
What can we expect? Dan Szymborski of ZiPS projections fame looked into the matter, using statistics from past Japanese players who’ve come to MLB to create an algorithm to figure out what to expect from Ohtani. When he input Ohtani’s NPB stats into his smart ass computer, the result was... about a solid number two starter, or maybe a lower-tier number one starter. Think around a 3.46 ERA with 157-ish strikeouts per year (you can see the exact numbers ZiPS projected at ESPN.com, but you’ll need an insider account). Those numbers aren’t bad by any means, but Ohtani isn’t going to be the next Clayton Kershaw.
Of course, Ohtani is also a hitter! He’s hit very well in NPB, posting a career .286/.358/.500 slash line with 48 home runs over 403 games. Pretty damn good for a kid who can pitch too. But like the pitching, ZiPS doesn’t project Ohtani to hit nearly as well against more advanced MLB pitching. Ohtani projects as about a .259 hitter with around 15 home runs a year — not exactly Babe Ruth. Ohtani would still be posting a positive WAR offensively, but it’s not exactly what you think of when you think of a designated hitter.
These projections could very well be wrong, especially given Ohtani’s age. He’s only 23 years old. It’s possible Ohtani would develop much more or faster than projected once he moves to the majors. Maybe if he also abandoned hitting to focus on pitching, he could be a top-tier ace — though it doesn’t sound like that’s what he wants to do, and Ohtani probably isn’t going to sign with a team that doesn’t let him do what he wants to do.
If Ohtani isn’t going to be that shutdown ace the Twins desperate want, should the Twins still try to sign him? ABSOLUTELY AND UNEQUIVOCALLY YES!
Yes, Ohtani is (probably) being over-hyped. Yes, every other team is (or should be) pursuing Ohtani. But here’s the thing: Ohtani isn’t so desirable because he’s going to be the BEST PLAYER EVA!!!!!1111 No. He’s desirable because he’s cheap as hell.
Since Ohtani is only 23 years old, he is subject to international signing rules. That means he can only sign a minor league contract, and only make the major league minimum in 2018 if he makes the big league roster for whatever team he signs with. Ohtani will have to work his way through arbitration and team control just like any other player. Considering the numbers he’s already put up in NPB — the highest-level baseball league in the world outside of MLB — that is a god damn steal.
Even if Ohtani came to the majors and totally stunk, it would cost a team virtually nothing. MLB teams sign prospects who never pan out all the time. It’s literally a cost of doing business teams already account for. In Ohtani’s case, he probably has a better chance of making it than almost any other international prospect. It’s a low (or virtually no) risk signing, with a potentially very high reward.
So, no, Shohei Ohtani probably won’t be a bonafide “ace” in the majors — meaning he’s not going to be as dominate as he was in Japan — but that doesn’t matter. He’ll still be a pretty dang good pitcher, and more importantly, really affordable. That’s actually exactly the kind of player a low-payroll team like the Twins really need.