Ranking the Top 7 Shohei Ohtani Favorites Heading into the Winter Meetings
Shohei Ohtani has narrowed his list down to a lucky seven. From that list will come an even luckier No. 1.
The Japanese phenom with the eyebrow-raising job title of "Ace/Slugger" was posted by the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters last week. He has until December 22 to pick his new home in Major League Baseball but didn't even wait until the winter meetings—which begin December 10—to say "Thanks but no thanks" to most franchises.
According to Jim Bowden of SiriusXM, only the Los Angeles Dodgers, San Francisco Giants, Chicago Cubs, San Diego Padres, Seattle Mariners, Los Angeles Angels and Texas Rangers remain in the running for the 23-year-old.
The goal here is to rank them from worst bet to sign Ohtani to best bet to sign him. To ensure this process isn't too presumptuous, let's start with a look at what factors the man himself is said to be weighing.
The "Rules" for Signing Ohtani
- "An evaluation of Shohei’s talent as a pitcher and/or a hitter;
- "Player development, medical, training and player performance philosophies and capabilities;
- "Major League, Minor League, and Spring Training facilities;
- "Resources for Shohei’s cultural assimilation;
- "A detailed plan for integrating Shohei into the organization;
- "Why the city and franchise are a desirable place to play;
- "Relevant marketplace characteristics."
Most free-agent sweepstakes come down to whichever team offers the most money.
Not this one.
The seven finalists for Ohtani know they'll have to pay Nippon Ham a $20 million posting fee to sign him, but Ohtani himself is subject to international rules that restrict him to, at best, a seven-figure signing bonus.
Bill Shaikin of the Los Angeles Times reported that Ohtani's primary concern is knowing exactly why he and his suitors are good for each other. That entails:
Of course, he may have unlisted preferences, too.
Per MLB.com's Bryan Hoch, New York Yankees general manager Brian Cashman got the impression that Ohtani prefers the West Coast and doesn't want to play in a big market. Jon Morosi of MLB Network reported multiple MLB executives believe Ohtani also prefers not to play on a team that already has a Japanese star.
With all this in mind, let's weigh his options.
7. Chicago Cubs
If Ohtani's main priorities are playing for a top-shelf MLB franchise with the means to turn him into a super-duper-star, he could do worse than the Cubs.
This is a historic franchise that stormed its way to a long-awaited World Series championship just last year. Wrigley Field is ancient but was recently equipped with all sorts of player-friendly amenities. In Sloan Park, the Cubs also boast the newest spring training complex in the Cactus League.
Should he sign with the Cubs, Ohtani would be the only Japanese star but far from the only young star. Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Willson Contreras headline one of the best young cores in MLB. At the controls is Joe Maddon, one of baseball's most progressive managers.
Per Eno Sarris of FanGraphs, the Cubs also have a good track record with keeping players healthy. That's no small consideration in light of the workload Ohtani seeks.
The biggest thing working against the Cubs, however, is their location.
They're the eastern-most team among Ohtani's finalists and located in one of MLB's biggest markets to boot. The bright side of that is the potential endorsements that could make up for the small $300,000 bonus the Cubs can pay him. The less-bright side is the pressure that comes with the territory.
What also doesn't help is that Chicago has a crowded roster that could make at-bats tough to come by. And as a win-now team, the Cubs can't afford to be too patient with his development.
6. Los Angeles Angels
Yes, a team-up of Ohtani, arguably the best baseball talent in the world, and Mike Trout, unarguably the best baseball player in the world, could happen.
If that isn't what's keeping the Angels in the mix for Ohtani, perhaps it's their location.
The Angels may see themselves as part of Los Angeles, but Anaheim itself is south of Los Angeles proper. There's a two-fold benefit of that: It's close enough to attract endorsement opportunities on top of the $2.315 million bonus the Angels can pay him but far enough away to allow for low-key living.
It's also a good place for Ohtani to assimilate culturally considering that Los Angeles has a large Japanese population in its own right.
But while Ohtani could be comfortable in the market, the team itself is another matter.
With Albert Pujols at designated hitter and Justin Upton and Kole Calhoun in the corner outfield spots, Angels skipper Mike Scioscia doesn't have obvious avenues through which to funnel at-bats to Ohtani. Without immediate results, attempts to shake things up on his behalf could elicit grudges among the incumbents.
Besides which, the Angels have neither the best facilities—Angel Stadium of Anaheim is 51 years old and Tempe Diablo Stadium, their spring training site, is 48 years old—nor the brightest future. Their farm system is bone dry. Should Trout leave as a free agent after 2020, dark times will befall the franchise.
5. Los Angeles Dodgers
Why should the Dodgers edge the Angels despite being the bigger pressure cooker of the two Los Angeles clubs?
How about the team itself?
Coming off a 104-win season and a trip to the World Series, the Dodgers loom as the top contender in the National League. They have the resources and the prospects to stay that way for years to come.
With Hideo Nomo, Kazuhisa Ishii, Takashi Saito, Hiroki Kuroda and Yu Darvish in their history and Kenta Maeda on their roster right now, the Dodgers don't need to prove they can handle a Japanese star. And their roster is a good fit for Ohtani. Their depth allows manager Dave Roberts to ask for something from everyone without asking too much from anyone.
Like Wrigley Field, Dodger Stadium is old and storied but also newly renovated. The surrounding area is just the place for Ohtani to find extra earnings on top of the measly $300,000 bonus the Dodgers can pay him.
Still, there's no disregarding the huge expectations that come with the Dodgers' market and standing as an MLB superpower. These expectations could only be compounded if Ohtani's development were to hit any snags.
Plus, Maeda's presence and the Dodgers' history of Japanese stars could be a curse more than a blessing.
"I feel like he just wants to come and not be compared to other guys who have already been here—to start fresh on his own, show what he can do by himself," Brandon Laird, a former Nippon Ham teammate, told MLB Network Radio, via Morosi.
4. Texas Rangers
They're not as far east as the Cubs, but the Rangers are certainly not a West Coast team. That alone puts them at a disadvantage in these sweepstakes.
Yet, it could be worth something that the Rangers aren't strangers to Ohtani. They're one of the clubs that was courting him out of high school in 2012, a process that Morosi says left Ohtani with a "favorable opinion" of the team's officials.
Texas' initial courtship of Ohtani happened during the year they welcomed Yu Darvish into the fold. Ohtani is known to have idolized Darvish, so he's surely not blind to how well his idol ended up fitting in with Texas. If there's a Japanese star he is comfortable following, Darvish may be the guy.
Meanwhile, the Rangers have room for Ohtani in their starting rotation and ways to get him at-bats in their lineup. Their DH and corner outfield depth charts appear to be negotiable.
If Ohtani is more interested in money than he's letting on, it's also to the Rangers' advantage that they can offer the biggest bonus at $3.535 million. And while Arlington is a small market, nearby Dallas is indeed a very big market that could attract endorsement opportunities.
Nonetheless, Ohtani may not deem any of this worth forgoing the West Coast. He could also be scared off by Texas' track record with injuries, which Sarris found to be one of the worst in baseball.
3. Seattle Mariners
If culture is the most important thing for Ohtani, it's hard to imagine a better fit than the Mariners.
Percentage-wise, Seattle has the highest percentage of Japanese-Americans of the cities left on Ohtani's radar. The Mariners' own Japanese ties range from formerly being owned by Nintendo to employing a list of Japanese stars topped by the biggest of them all: Ichiro Suzuki.
"We want to sell the Seattle experience and what it means to Japanese-Americans, our culture and how this organization has trended so positively when we have the star Japanese player," said Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto, per MLB.com's Greg Johns.
The Mariners might also sell Ohtani on the idea of being a franchise savior. They haven't been to the postseason since Ichiro spearheaded a 116-win season in 2001. They've yet to reach the World Series.
Money is another advantage. The Mariners can offer a $2.557 million bonus. And while Seattle isn't a huge media market, it's a good-sized market that didn't stop Ichiro from raking in millions in endorsements.
Of course, this is assuming Ohtani wants to follow in the footsteps of Ichiro and the other Japanese stars the Mariners have had. He might not.
He also might not be enthused about joining a team that is built around an aging core and owns one of MLB's weakest farm systems. And while Sarris' data shows the Mariners don't attract many injuries in general, the ones they do tend to be significant.
2. San Diego Padres
The Padres are emerging as a sneaky favorite for Ohtani. The "why" for this covers a veritable laundry list of interesting ties and tidbits.
Jon Heyman laid them all out at FanRag Sports, starting with how San Diego GM A.J. Preller has stealthily been coveting Ohtani for a while. He's in charge of a front office that employs two executives who scouted Ohtani for the Dodgers years ago. Nomo and Saito, two Japanese legends, also work in the front office.
San Diego is a heck of a place for Ohtani to park himself. It may not attract endorsements that would build on the $300,000 bonus the Padres can give him. However, he's not going to find a more low-key market.
Coming off a 91-loss season, the Padres aren't a good team now. But at least they don't have any Japanese stars. They've also already used Christian Bethancourt as a two-way guinea pig, and should have all the time and patience in the world to perfect the experiment with Ohtani.
In the meantime, a farm system that already ranks as Bleacher Report's fourth-best will keep growing. Before long, Ohtani could be part of a group that brings the Padres their first ever World Series title.
There is the possibility that Ohtani doesn't want to wait for wins, however. And in light of their terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad injury track record, signing up to wait for wins in San Diego would mean putting his health at risk.
1. San Francisco Giants
Perhaps it's not a good idea to read into how, according to Alex Pavlovic of NBC Sports Bay Area, the Giants were the first of the seven finalists to meet with Ohtani.
Alternatively: Perhaps it is?
The Giants are a team with a storied history that notably includes three World Series titles since 2010 and, even more notably, doesn't include any big Japanese stars.
If Ohtani wants to win, he'd have to trust that the 98 losses the Giants endured in 2017 are an aberration. Even if that's a stretch, there are other things that could convince him to hop aboard anyway.
Per Sarris' data, the Giants are one of the best teams in MLB at protecting players from serious injuries. After hitting an MLB-low 128 home runs in 2017, they have the biggest need for Ohtani's power. And while AT&T Park doesn't cater to power, it's a beautiful stadium that caters to pitchers like no other.
Under manager Bruce Bochy, San Francisco's clubhouse is known for chemistry that's made it a welcome environment for young players. Bochy has also shown with Madison Bumgarner that he doesn't mind using pitchers who can rake. Helping Ohtani on his path would be bench coach Hensley Meulens, who once played in Japan and still speaks Japanese.
The downside of living in San Francisco would be the tremendous cost of living. But it's certainly a big enough market to attract endorsements to augment the $300,000 bonus the Giants can give him. It also might be the most low-key big market that MLB has to offer.
All told, what's not to like?
Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference.