As the Hot Stove heats up, all eyes are on Japanese two-way star Shohei Ohtani. His Nippon Professional Baseball team, the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters, posted him Friday, and Ohtani has until Dec. 22 to sign with a Major League team.
Ohtani recently narrowed his list to seven teams -- the Angels, Cubs, Dodgers, Giants, Mariners, Padres and Rangers -- and met with each of them this week in Los Angeles.
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The Mariners made headlines Thursday, not only by trading for All-Star second baseman Dee Gordon, but by also netting an additional $1 million to their international bonus pool. The deal catapulted Seattle into the top spot in terms of how much international bonus money they can offer Ohtani, at $3.557 million, followed by the Rangers ($3.535 million) and Angels ($2.315 million). Because Ohtani, 23, is not 25 years old, he is subject to international spending rules, so while he likely would've earned a nine-figure salary on the open market, his bonus will be far smaller.
While money may not be the most important factor for Ohtani, the Cubs, Dodgers, Giants and Padres can only offer him $300,000 after exceeding their bonus pool in each of the past two years.
:: Shohei Ohtani coverage ::
Here is the latest buzz on Ohtani:
Mariners strengthen their position
The Hot Stove may have been officially ignited when the Mariners and Marlins consummated a deal Thursday evening.
Miami dealt second baseman Dee Gordon, who has led the Majors in steals in three of the past four seasons, to Seattle along with the aforementioned bonus pool money. In exchange, the Marlins received pitcher Nick Neidert, the Mariners' No. 2 prospect per MLBPipeline.com, infielder Chris Torres (Mariners' No. 7) and right-hander Robert Dugger.
With Robinson Cano and Jean Segura firmly entrenched as the Mariners' double-play combo, multiple reports claim that Seattle will try to play the speedy Gordon in center field.
Mariners, Angels add bonus pool money
The Mariners and Angels each bolstered their potential offers to Ohtani on Wednesday by acquiring $1 million in international bonus pool cap space each from the Twins in exchange for Minor League prospects. Seattle added another $1 million in Thursday's trade with the Marlins for Dee Gordon.
The move upped the Mariners' total to $3.557 million. The Rangers can offer Ohtani $3.535 million and the Angels can offer $2.315 million.
Seattle sent 21-year-old catcher David Banuelos to Minnesota. A fifth-round Draft selection in June, Banuelos rates as the club's No. 10 prospect, per MLB Pipeline. He made his professional debut with Class A Short-Season Everett in 2017 and earned a spot on the Northwest League All-Star team.
The Angels traded No. 5 prospect Jacob Pearson, a third-round Draft choice in 2017. The 19-year-old outfielder played 40 games for the Arizona League Angels this year.
And then there were none
San Diego was the last of the seven to meet with Ohtani, after the first six did so on Monday and Tuesday. Afterward, both sides remained tight-lipped on the proceedings -- as has been the case throughout. Few details regarding Ohtani's preferences have emerged.
Nationally, it qualified as a bit of a surprise that the Padres found themselves at the forefront of the Ohtani chatter.
Because Ohtani will enter the big leagues before age 25, he's subject to international signing rules, making him extremely affordable given his impressive skill set. Still, the Padres are limited to $300,000 in the money they can offer as a signing bonus. That stems from a penalty they incurred for exceeding their bonus pool during the 2016-17 international signing period.
On top of the bonus, Ohtani would enter the big leagues on a rookie-level contract. Whoever Ohtani chooses must also pay the Nippon-Ham Fighters a posting fee of $20 million.
There are a handful of reasons Ohtani and the Padres might end up being a match. Ohtani's connections to the Padres organization have been brought up extensively in the past few days. Former Japanese pitchers Hideo Nomo and Takashi Saito reside in the front office in San Diego, and Seiichiro Nakagaki, Ohtani's former trainer with the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters, serves as the club's director of sports science. Plus, until last season, the Fighters trained at the Padres' facilities in Peoria, Ariz., as part of a deal between the two teams.
Speaking on MLB Network on Monday, general manager A.J. Preller was asked about those connections, and he said they were mostly "overblown." But in a recruitment process like this one, no stone will be left unturned.
The Padres, to the surprise of some, have made it this far. They'll have to beat out six more teams to land one of the most coveted international free agents.
Mariners go face to face with Ohtani
The Mariners made their pitch to Ohtani on Tuesday morning, sources told MLB.com's Greg Johns.
General manager Jerry Dipoto and the club are remaining mum on this week's developments, refusing to even confirm Tuesday's meeting. The other contending clubs also have taken similar silent approaches, clearly not wanting to make any mistakes at this critical juncture.
But it's a safe bet that Dipoto made a persuasive presentation regarding the Mariners' history with Japanese players as well as the strong Japanese community in Seattle, the lure of the Puget Sound's scenic waterfront city, Safeco Field's renown as a pitching park that still plays well for a left-handed power hitter like Ohtani, and how he could be a difference-maker for a club that felt it was strongly positioned for a playoff push last year before injuries undercut the previous season's progress.
One of Ohtani's questions to clubs concerned the teams' medical training and player-performance philosophies and facilities, and the Mariners just hired Dr. Lorena Martin, who brings an impressive combination of education and experience in mental and physical preparation combined with analytics.
The Mariners also present a familiar Spring Training environment for Ohtani, who was at the adjacent Padres' facility in Peoria, Ariz., with his Nippon Ham Fighters club for visits the past two years.
The Mariners also have extensive experience helping prominent Japanese players integrate into their team and city, having had at least one Japanese player on their 25-man roster every year since 1998. Ichiro Suzuki, one of Ohtani's favorite players growing up in Japan, spent 12 seasons as a Mariners star from 2001-12.
Hisashi Iwakuma has been one of Seattle's top pitchers the past six years and recently signed a Minor League deal to remain with the Mariners as he comes back from shoulder surgery. Kazuhiro Sasaki was the Mariners closer from 2000-03, Kenji Johjima was the starting catcher from 2006-09, and utility infielder Munenori Kawasaki and outfielder Norichika Aoki have played with the club in recent seasons.
Mac Suzuki was the first Japanese player for the Mariners as he pitched for Seattle in 1996 and 1998-99. And the club was the first -- and only -- MLB franchise to have Japanese ownership as the Nintendo Corporation was the primary owner from 1992-2016 and still holds a minority share, which resulted in the Mariners being a popular and oft-televised club in Japan during Ohtani's youth.
Despite his current silence, Dipoto has made no secret of his team's desire to land Ohtani in the lead up to negotiations and even made a trade last month with the White Sox to add $500,000 in international bonus pool money. That brought Seattle's available funds up to $1.55 million, which puts them second to the Rangers in what they can offer among the remaining contenders.
But Ohtani has chosen to come to MLB at age 23 rather than wait until he turns 25, when he could have been an international free agent capable of commanding a huge contract. Which is why Dipoto and other GMs have put on their recruiting hats.
"This is maybe the most unique circumstance I can recall in baseball," Dipoto said two weeks ago. "It is all about how you as a city, an organization and as human beings appeal to an individual rather than the final paycheck. In my lifetime, that's never really been a thing."
Cubs know how to make creatives presentations
The Cubs met Ohtani on Tuesday, according to MLB Network insider Ken Rosenthal.
Ohtani got an up-close look at the Cubs' Spring Training facility in Mesa, Ariz., last year while doing rehab work in February, according to the Kyodo News. The Cubs' complex opened in 2014, and is state of the art, including a 7,500-square-foot workout and training facility. The Fighters have held the first phase of Spring Training at the Padres' complex in Peoria, Ariz., the past few years.
The Cubs have been quiet about negotiations, but team president of baseball operations Theo Epstein does know how to make a strong presentation. When the Cubs were courting free agent Jonathan Lester, they created a recruiting video that included a fake World Series play-by-play call by the teams' broadcasters. In the video, Lester was starting Game 7 of the World Series.
The video also featured highlights of the Cubs' talented young players, such as Kristopher Bryant and Anthony Rizzo, and focused on why it was a good time to play for the team. The Cubs did a similar video presentation for then-free agents Jason Heyward and Benjamin Zobrist, and that one included Lester and David Ross saying, "Everything they told us last year came true."
While Ohtani was believed to prefer a West Coast team, playing and pitching for the Cubs apparently intrigued him enough to listen -- and most likely watch -- their presentation.
Rangers meet with Ohtani in LA
Rangers officials were in Los Angeles on Tuesday meeting with Ohtani and his representatives, industry sources confirmed.
The Rangers' delegation was headed by co-owner Ray Davis, general manager Jon Daniels and manager Jeff Banister. Also present at the meeting were assistant general manager Josh Boyd, medical director Jamie Reed, strength and conditioning coach Jose Vazquez, and Japanese scouts Joe Furukawa and Hajime Watabe.
Boyd, Furukawa and Watabe have been part of the Rangers' significant scouting efforts in Japan, and they tried to sign Ohtani out of high school before he signed with the Nippon-Ham Fighters.
Reed and Vazquez are there to address any concerns and questions Ohtani might have about the Rangers' medical and training programs. But Banister will likely deliver the most important message.
Banister is expected to address Ohtani's desire to be able to both pitch and hit in the big leagues. The Rangers need Ohtani as a pitcher, but any club that signs him is expected to indulge his hope of being able to swing the bat at least on a part-time basis. Banister is on record as saying that Ohtani has the ability to do both.
Angels still in on Ohtani despite Maitan signing
The Angels agreed to a $2.2 million deal with former Braves shortstop prospect Kevin Maitan, according to MLB.com's Jesse Sanchez, but that will not impact their pursuit of Ohtani.
Maitan was the premier prospect whom the Braves were forced to surrender after Major League Baseball sanctioned them for infractions committed in the international market. He ranks No. 38 on MLBPipeline.com's Top 100 Prospects.
Teams signing recently released former Braves prospects have the option of counting bonuses toward the current 2017-18 period or the '18-19 period, but they cannot combine the two. As the Angels only have $1,315,000 left in their current bonus pool, the Maitan deal would appear to count toward their '18-19 pool.
That said, the Angels were among the teams to meet with Ohtani on Monday. It's unclear who represented the Angels at the meeting with Ohtani and his agent, Nez Balelo of CAA, though it's likely that manager Mike Scioscia was present, along with general manager Billy Eppler and other members of the Angels' front office.
Giants first to meet with Japanese star
One day after the baseball world learned that Ohtani had narrowed his search to seven teams, the Giants were the first club revealed to meet with Ohtani, a source told MLB.com's Jon Paul Morosi.
San Francisco -- which was also the first club to meet with Giancarlo Stanton last week -- sent a large group of officials who met with Ohtani on Monday in Los Angeles, according to a report from NBC Sports. The club has not commented on the reports.
The Giants' contingent included executive vice president Brian Sabean, general manager Bobby Evans and manager Bruce Bochy, along with All-Star catcher and former National League MVP Award winner Buster Posey.
The Giants also have been the most aggressive team in pursuit of Stanton, alongside the Cardinals, though the Dodgers are said to be Stanton's preferred destination.
Ohtani has stated his desire to be a two-way player in the Major Leagues, and Bochy told NBC Sports on Friday that San Francisco had mapped out a way in which Ohtani could get 300-400 at-bats in 2018.
"It's going to make it a little easier next year with our days off," Bochy said. "Looking at the new schedule ... he could play even more, because he'll get that additional rest."
San Francisco is coming off a season in which it finished tied for the Majors' worst record at 64-98, but the Giants have been openly aggressive this offseason in an attempt to return to the form that netted three World Series titles in five seasons from 2010-14.
Dodgers get together with Ohtani
The Dodgers were one of the teams to meet with Ohtani on Monday, according to MLB Network insider Ken Rosenthal. The club has not confirmed the meeting.
Los Angeles is coming off a World Series appearance, with the Cubs the only other finalist to reach the Fall Classic in the past three seasons. Of course, nobody really knows if that's viewed as a pro or con by Ohtani. With the chance to win now comes the pressure to win now. What is clear is Ohtani's goal to be the most impactful combination pitcher-slugger in modern Major League ball -- the Babe Ruth of the digital age.
There is more for Ohtani to like about joining the Dodgers than just their recent World Series appearance. Los Angeles can boast the largest Japanese community on the U.S. mainland. The Dodgers also have a history of success with Japanese pitchers -- Hideo Nomo, Kaz Ishii, Takashi Saito, Hiroki Kuroda, Kenta Maeda and Yu Darvish. The Dodgers have a pitching coach, Rick Honeycutt, proven to be accommodating and helpful with Japanese pitchers. Dodger Stadium is generally considered pitcher-friendly, and Ohtani's calling card -- despite a penchant for hitting homers -- is a triple-digit fastball.
The Dodgers have a Japanese soft-tissue specialist on the medical staff, Yosuke Nakajima; a Japanese-speaking director of team travel, Scott Akasaki; a Japanese-speaking manager of public relations, Daisuke Sugiura; and even a manager born in Okinawa to a Japanese mother, Dave Roberts.
And the Dodgers, who generally hide their intentions, were uncharacteristically public in their interest this season, when president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman took Orel Hershiser out of the broadcast booth and over to Japan for a scouting expedition of Ohtani.
Although Ohtani was still rehabbing from an ankle injury, he threw a bullpen session and took batting practice. Presumably, the Dodgers knew more about him from game video than they could compile in a practice session, but the trans-Pacific face time undoubtedly was meant to send a message of the club's sincerity.
The player and the team seem a solid fit. There is no real financial bidding war for Ohtani, who wants an MLB experience so badly that he's jumping now -- when he's bound to bonus limits because of his age -- instead of waiting two more years when limits wouldn't apply.
Conveniently, the Dodgers are in the international bonus penalty box for their significant spending in previous seasons, so they are allowed to pay Ohtani only a $300,000 bonus (plus the $20 million posting fee to his team in Japan). For them, the timing couldn't be better.
L.A.'s starting pitching depth would allow Ohtani to gradually adjust to more frequent starts than needed in Japan. Management already has shown a desire to shuffle a sixth starter in and out of the rotation to provide rest for others.
The Dodgers apparently satisfied Ohtani's insistence to double as a hitter, even though AL clubs (Texas, Seattle and Anaheim) offer the additional option of designated hitter. With Los Angeles, Ohtani would likely be used in the outfield when he's not pitching.
The Dodgers recruited Ohtani five years ago, when he was coming out of high school. But their chief recruiters at the time, Logan White and Acey Kohrogi, are now executives with the Padres. San Diego GM A.J. Preller also recruited Ohtani in 2012 on behalf of the Rangers.