Japanese 2-way player Ohtani could shake up market

MLB waiting to see if righty/DH will be posted this year by Nippon-Ham Fighters

November 10th, 2016

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Over the course of the next week we will see the game's best and brightest being feted with Cy Youngs and MVPs, among other major trophies. But one name you won't hear announced on any of these awards shows is arguably the most dynamic baseball talent in the world.

Shohei Ohtani just led the Nippon Ham Fighters to the Japan Series title and this came on the heels of a season in which the 22-year-old pitcher/DH (you read that right) posted a 1.86 ERA while slugging 22 homers with a league-high 1.004 OPS and getting Major League general managers dreaming of the possibilities. So now the question is: When will we see him in MLB?

"He'd be by far the best pitcher on the market" this offseason, said one GM who, like the others consulted, spoke on the condition of anonymity because Ohtani is still under contract with his Japanese club.

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Ohtani would be the best pitcher to come over from Japan since signed with the Yankees in 2014 and, before that, , who was 26 when he joined the Rangers in '12 following seven seasons in Japan. Darvish also pitched for the Fighters, who defeated the Hiroshima Carp in a six-game title series last month.

But there's an added bonus with Ohtani. He's an excellent hitter who serves as the Fighters' designated hitter three games a week in between starts.

Will Ohtani join MLB as a pitcher, a hitter or both?

"It's something I don't have any control of," Ohtani said earlier this year when the Fighters were in Arizona for two weeks for Spring Training. "It's something the team that wants me picks. If they want me as a pitcher, I'll go as a pitcher. If they want me as a hitter, I'll go as a hitter. It's really not up to me."

But take a look at this past season's numbers: Ohtani, as a right-handed pitcher who throws in the high 90s and regularly reaches 100 mph, was 10-4 with a league-best 1.86 ERA and 174 strikeouts in 140 innings. As a left-handed hitter, he had a slash line of .322/.416/.588 with 22 homers, 67 RBIs and a 1.004 OPS (high enough to lead the league, but he fell short of the minimum to qualify with 382 plate appearances).

Ohtani used to play the outfield, too, but the Fighters stopped that practice after he injured a calf muscle and missed part of the 2015 season.

In the Majors, there hasn't been a true two-way player in the DH era. More than a century ago, Babe Ruth played some outfield on the days he didn't pitch for the Red Sox, appearing in 225 games as an offensive player in 1918-19, when he also pitched in 37 games. The Yankees shut him down as a pitcher after they got him from Boston in time for the 1920 season.

Would a Major League team also let Ohtani hit in games in which he doesn't pitch?

"Sign me up," said another MLB GM. "I think every one of the 30 teams would be in the mix."

Here's the challenge for Ohtani: Under Nippon Professional Baseball rules, he is a four-year player who won't be available internationally as an unrestricted free agent until after his ninth season. So the only way he can join MLB before then is if the Fighters post him under the latest rules for the maximum fee of $20 million. They can do so anytime between now and when the Japan Leagues begin Spring Training in early February.

But the sooner the better, MLB GMs mused, before they spend all their offseason money. If the Fighters do post Ohtani, every Major League team would have a shot at signing him. The one that does would pay the fee.

The posting system used to make it a lot more lucrative for Japanese teams. MLB clubs that wanted to compete for the services of a Japanese player sent a blind bid to Major League Baseball. In 2007, the Red Sox won the sole rights to talk to pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka with a high bid of $51.11 million. They signed the right-hander to a six-year deal worth $52 million.

To make it more competitive for MLB teams, the posting system was changed in December 2013, just in time for the arrival of Tanaka, who had finished a 24-0 season with a 1.27 ERA for the Rakuten Golden Eagles. Tanaka toured the U.S. and the Yankees prevailed, signing the right-hander to a seven-year, $155 million contract.

The Eagles received the maximum $20 million fee.

That kind of money could help a team sign a lot of players in Japan, and the Fighters now have to decide whether Ohtani is at his maximum value in a year when , and are the best starting pitchers on MLB's free-agent market.

A few MLB GMs don't think Ohtani will be posted until 2018, though a report on Wednesday in the New York Post said that next offseason is the target and he could fetch more than $200 million.

If you're Ohtani, though, you'd probably want to get over here as soon as possible just for the payday. Hiroki Kuroda, finishing his stellar career that traversed Japan and the U.S., was the highest-paid player in Japan this past season at $4.9 million. Ohtani earned $1.83 million.

But there are other considerations, like hitting. As a teenager, Ohtani asked the NPB teams not to draft him so he could immediately sign in the U.S. The Fighters told him he could be a two-way player, and that changed his mind.

They were able to do so because in Japan, like MLB, the Pacific League -- which the Fighters play in -- utilizes the DH.

Similarly, in the U.S., National League teams, sans the DH, would be at a disadvantage trying to sign Ohtani. The pool would further be culled by weeding out American League teams that don't want Ohtani to DH on the days he's not pitching.

At least one GM said his team would agree Ohtani can do both, shattering all precedence. And Ohtani will make big money.

It's up to the Fighters to post him, and 30 MLB teams are waiting on that decision.