What matters most in race to woo Ohtani?

Japanese star likely seeking firm commitment to pitch and hit

December 1st, 2017

Major League Baseball owners unanimously ratified the sport's new posting agreement Friday, and as a result, the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters posted right-handed pitcher/outfielder Shohei Ohtani, with a release fee of $20 million.

With that, we can begin to decipher the answer to a question that's been asked around the baseball industry for months -- years, even.

What does Ohtani care about the most?

As the league-wide courtship begins, team executives who spoke with MLB.com believe these will be the most important factors:

1. The ability to pitch and hit 

Since the financial offers will be so similar to one another, Ohtani has the freedom to choose a professional opportunity on its own merits. And he has said publicly -- including in a February interview with MLB.com -- that he wants to pitch and hit in MLB. Even at age 23, Ohtani is keenly aware that doing so would change perceptions about what is possible in the Major Leagues. The notion of making a historic impact appeals to him, as does the sheer difficulty of performing in both disciplines against the world's best competition.

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Ohtani will seek a firm commitment from his new employer that he will report to Spring Training as a pitcher and hitter. He's very likely to receive those assurances.

One subplot is how National League teams will craft their sales pitch, knowing that American League clubs have the built-in advantage of using him at designated hitter, as the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters did in Japan. , the former Yankees and Astros infielder who played alongside Ohtani on the Fighters for the past three seasons, said his former teammate has the ability to play a defensive position on a regular basis. (Ohtani has some professional experience in right field.)

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"I think he can play a position," Laird said Thursday on MLB Network Radio. "I see him, how he gets off the mound on bunt defense -- he pretty much plays every position. He jumps off the mound on a bunt. He can make off-balance throws on the money. He can run like the wind. With his athletic ability, he can play a position somewhere -- even the outfield."

2. Location

While it's not a given that Ohtani wants to play in a major coastal city, a team's market dynamics are relevant for a couple reasons. First, ideally he'll live and work in a place where it's not overly difficult to assimilate culturally. Second, and of great financial importance, market size and profile have direct relationships to endorsement opportunities (on either side of the Pacific) that will account for a substantial share of Ohtani's initial income in North America.

3. Team atmosphere

There are two subheadings here: how management will help Ohtani reach his potential, and his relationships with teammates.

The former is relatively straightforward: How will the prospective front office and field staff articulate their culture and values? In the areas of performance optimization and medical training, what data and practices will teams express in responding to the questionnaire sent to all 30 teams last week?

Regarding the clubhouse itself, there's robust debate among MLB team executives about whether Ohtani wants to share the spotlight with a fellow Japanese star, or sign with a team that doesn't already have a prominent Japanese player. In fact, there have been conflicting reports presented by Japanese media on that subject over the past several weeks.

Robert Whiting, a leading author and journalist on Japanese baseball, told MLB.com that the evening daily tabloid Nikkan Gendai reported on Nov. 15 that Ohtani doesn't want to go to an MLB team that currently has a Japanese player. However, the Gendai did not provide a firsthand quotation to that effect.

Meanwhile, Whiting also referenced a Sports Navi story -- published two days after the Nikkan Gendai report -- citing a 2016 Ohtani interview in which he said the main condition for joining an MLB team is whether the club will allow him to pitch and hit, not how much money he's earning or whether the team already has a Japanese ace.

Whiting pointed out that Ohtani has changed his mind on major decisions before, including when he opted to join the Fighters at age 18 rather than sign with an MLB club, as he had suggested he planned to do.

Laird was asked if he was surprised to learn that some MLB team executives believe Ohtani would like to be the only Japanese player on his team.

"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," Laird told MLB Network Radio. "He's got the ability. He's always shown interest in coming to the States. I think he'll adapt -- not only to the baseball side but to the culture. Living in the United States is what he wants to do."

4. Money

Does money matter? Of course. There's a reason the Rangers ($3.535 million currently available) and Yankees ($3.5 million) added to their international signing bonus allotments via trades in recent months. (Both figures are courtesy of MLB Network Research.)

Yet, money is clearly not the most important consideration to Ohtani. If it were, he would've chosen to remain with the Fighters for two more seasons, after which he would've enjoyed uncapped free agency among MLB teams.

Ohtani is coming now because he wants a transformative challenge -- on his terms. And he will get them. The financial rewards will arrive another day.