On Monday, I asked a high-ranking Major League Baseball team executive who has interest in signing Shohei Ohtani to name the clubs he believes will be his stiffest competition in his bid to land the two-way star.
The answer amounted to a shrug.
"There's no way of knowing what he will choose to do," the executive said.
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Mere days from his formal posting, and less than two weeks before the Winter Meetings open amid frenzied anticipation over his baseball future, Ohtani remains a riddle. And that is true even among many team officials preparing to court him.
As first reported by The Associated Press, Ohtani's agent, Nez Balelo, sent a questionnaire to all 30 MLB teams last week, requesting detailed information on athletic training and player-development practices, along with cultural-assimilation programs.
Because of Collective Bargaining Agreement provisions on international players under the age of 25, the variance in financial offers presented to Ohtani -- and the signing bonus itself -- will be small in baseball terms. And so the substance and style of the teams' responses to the memo will carry outsized significance for a unique free agent.
Ohtani has introduced a paradox to the Hot Stove: His free agency is one of the most heavily regulated in the sport's history and yet it could inspire the greatest creativity among enterprising general managers eager to win over a 23-year-old's heart.
With that, here's a still-early scouting report on the favorites to sign the pitcher/designated hitter/outfielder who dreams of revolutionizing the game in North America.
The presumed "favorites"
Just in case money matters to Ohtani a little bit, the Yankees possess the second-largest current international bonus pool of any Major League team at $3.5 million. The Yanks have rather conspicuously left open a rotation spot, rather than re-sign veteran Carsten Sabathia. They also lack a full-time DH, raising the possibility of a part-time player picking up at-bats there. You wouldn't happen to know someone who could do both of those jobs, do you? Also of note: New York has the wherewithal to make Ohtani very wealthy through a contract extension at the appropriate time, the Yankees' brand would expand his endorsement opportunities around the world, and the franchise has a long history of working with Japanese players (including Hideki Irabu, Hideki Matsui and Masahiro Tanaka) and corporate sponsors.
In familiarity with Japanese players, ease of cultural adjustment, marketing platforms and opportunity to win immediately, the Dodgers offer many of the same things as the Yankees -- at a considerably closer distance to Japan. Los Angeles has the largest Japanese-American community of any metropolitan area on the U.S. mainland. Hideo Nomo and Hiroki Kuroda made their MLB debuts -- and thrived -- with the Dodgers; they now rank first and second, respectively, on the Majors' all-time wins list among Japanese-born pitchers. All of that is certain to be part of Los Angeles' presentation to Ohtani. The Dodgers face a $300,000 limit on any offer to Ohtani, but he'd likely be able to earn exponentially more than that via endorsement income in L.A. One concern: As a National League team, the Dodgers will need to articulate how often they'd plan for him to start in the outfield; American League teams have the advantage of utilizing him at DH, a less physically taxing role and the one he most frequently had on non-pitching days in Japan.
If Ohtani signs with the team that has demonstrated the most sustained persistence over the greatest number of years, he may well become a Texas Ranger. Ohtani told MLB.com earlier this year that the Rangers -- along with the Dodgers and Giants -- showed the greatest interest in him as an 18-year-old amateur free agent in Japan. They've invested years and untold sums of money in developing on-the-ground expertise in Japanese baseball, through repeated trips to the country by assistant general manager Josh Boyd and general manager Jon Daniels. Yu Darvish, one of Ohtani's idols, became an MLB star with Texas. The Rangers have an evident need for starting pitching entering the 2018 season, and they possess the largest remaining international amateur signing bonus allocation -- $3.535 million -- of any MLB team.
Seattle general manager Jerry Dipoto described in-depth on "The Wheelhouse" podcast at MLB.com how his front office has prepared to make an all-out recruiting pitch to Ohtani, telling Mariners broadcaster Aaron Goldsmith that the work has taken roughly one year. A video about Seattle will be among the items presented to Ohtani, and the Seattle Times has reported that Hall of Famer Ken Griffey Jr. has been discussed as one possibility for an in-person appeal. The Mariners' spending power falls somewhere in the middle of Ohtani's suitors ($1.558 million), but they can sell a rich legacy of Japanese stars in Seattle, including one of Ohtani's favorite players, Ichiro Suzuki. The Mariners, like the Yankees and Rangers, have legitimate roster needs in the rotation and could use Ohtani as a part-time DH. Balelo recently negotiated a significant deal with Dipoto: Jean Segura's five-year, $70 million contract extension.
At least three Red Sox scouts saw Ohtani in Japan this season, which reflects the seriousness of Boston's pursuit. They have roughly $3 million less to offer Ohtani than their archrival Yankees, which could severely compromise their chances. Red Sox officials will need to convince Ohtani that the experience of playing in Boston, and at Fenway Park, would be enough to override that financial gap. One possible narrative the Red Sox could seize upon: They clearly missed a left-handed-hitting designated hitter in 2017; Ohtani can fill that role in '18.
While the Cubs face the same $300,000 limitation as the Dodgers, it would be foolish to overlook them. Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer and Joe Maddon are known for their dramatic (and often comedic) timing. If they produce a recruitment video, as expected, it will be one of the most elaborate Ohtani sees. The Cubs can sell Ohtani on the history of Wrigley Field, melded with the most recent advances they've made in player performance. Epstein and Hoyer have a good working relationship with Balelo from negotiations on other clients, which should help to facilitate any discussions. Epstein is very familiar with Japanese baseball, having signed Daisuke Matsuzaka during his tenure as Boston's GM and taken the Red Sox to Japan for a season-opening series in 2008. The Cubs' need for starting-rotation help provides a strong baseball basis to pursue the right-hander, as well.
As mentioned above, Ohtani had a favorable interaction with the Giants when he first contemplated the move to MLB as an amateur player. That should help San Francisco's chances, as will the fact that it has slightly more than $1.8 million to offer him. Ohtani would instantly become the biggest Japanese star in Giants history -- an important distinction for a franchise in an internationally renowned city that has won three World Series titles this decade. San Francisco could struggle to convince Ohtani that the club is ready to win immediately, following a disastrous 2017 season. The roster needs an infusion of young, inexpensive talent to compete in the rugged NL West; Ohtani is that, but the Giants may not be one star away from returning to the playoffs.
Minnesota general manager Thad Levine told MLB Network Radio on Sunday that answering Ohtani's questionnaire and engaging with him was a "top priority" for the organization. The baseball fit is an obvious one, given the Twins' need for a high-end starting pitcher. As an executive with the Rangers, Levine was intimately involved in the team's signing of Darvish before the 2012 season, and he has brought that institutional knowledge to Minnesota. Twins chief baseball officer Derek Falvey is regarded as one of the leading MLB executives in the field of analyzing pitchers, so the technical aspect of Minnesota's presentation should be impressive. The Twins are one of only three teams -- along with the Rangers and Yankees -- with more than $3 million in international bonus money remaining. But in contrast to many clubs pursuing Ohtani, Minnesota lacks an enduring connection to Japanese stars.
We've listed eight teams. Based on what sources have told MLB.com, Ohtani is very likely to sign with one of them. But there's always the promise of chaos in a courtship that promoted wonder and made history -- long before it formally began.