Shohei Ohtani will ask the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters to post him to Major League Baseball teams this offseason, according to Japanese media reports. The Fighters are expected to accede to those wishes.
Beyond that, there's little certainty in the early stages of what's destined to be one of the most sophisticated free-agent courtships in professional sports history.
We don't know which MLB team is the favorite to sign Ohtani.
"I don't think there is one," one assistant general manager told MLB.com this week.
We don't know how steadfastly Ohtani, 23, will insist on both pitching and hitting, having dreamed for years of contributing to an MLB franchise in both roles.
We don't know how viable teams view the pitching/hitting combination, given the physical demands on a star pitcher who missed a substantial portion of this season due to injuries.
We don't know if Ohtani has a strong preference to play on the West Coast, given the (relative) proximity to his native Japan.
We don't know who Ohtani's U.S.-based agent will be, a choice that could have profound ramifications on the tenor of negotiations.
We don't know what the signing rules will be, given that the posting system between MLB and Nippon Professional Baseball clubs is currently being renegotiated, as initially reported by Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports. A full breakdown of the international signing rules can be found at the bottom of this story.
But we do know at least five MLB team executives with the title of general manager -- or higher -- scouted Ohtani in person this year: Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman; Yankees general manager Brian Cashman; Padres general manager A.J. Preller; Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto; and Rangers president of baseball operations Jon Daniels.
Here's a look at how, and why, Ohtani could fit those teams.
The presence of Yu Darvish on the Dodgers' roster illustrates why the National League West leaders could be a match for Ohtani. Either Darvish leaves as a free agent after this season and Friedman must replace him with another elite right-hander or Darvish -- Ohtani's idol and the Fighters' former ace -- re-signs with Los Angeles and becomes integral to the Dodgers' recruiting efforts with Ohtani.
How much does Ohtani revere Darvish? When Ohtani joined the Fighters, he assumed the jersey number --11 -- that Darvish left behind when he departed for MLB.
The Dodgers are prohibited from paying Ohtani or any international amateur a signing bonus of more than $300,000 until July 2, 2018, because of previous spending over international bonus caps. But implicit in Ohtani's decision to come to MLB now -- rather than wait two years, when he'd become exempt from the international signing limitations -- is that access to MLB itself is more important than maximizing the amount of his first signing bonus in North America.
Culturally, Los Angeles holds great appeal for Ohtani: California is home to the largest Japanese-American population of any U.S. state, and three of the top five Japanese-born pitchers on the MLB wins list have worn Dodgers uniforms: Hideo Nomo (first), Hiroki Kuroda (second) and Darvish (fifth).
The Yankees' interest in Ohtani hasn't been subtle. Yanks assistant GM Jean Afterman -- whose vast expertise includes deep ties to Japanese baseball -- was on New York's scouting trip to see Ohtani, according to the New York Daily News. And the Yankees have added to their international spending power by acquiring bonus allotments via trade.
This offseason, the Yanks could face the departures of three pitchers from their current rotation: Carsten Sabathia and Jaime Garcia are eligible for free agency, and Masahiro Tanaka can opt out of his contract.
The Padres must contend with two substantial hurdles: They can't offer Ohtani a strong chance to win right away, having missed the postseason in every year since 2006. They also face the same $300,000 limitation as the Dodgers.
If San Diego becomes a major player for Ohtani, it will do so because of Preller's connections to him. Ohtani told MLB Network earlier this year that he considered signing directly with the Dodgers, Giants and Rangers in 2012, before he joined the Fighters. At the time, Preller was the Rangers' senior director of player personnel.
The Mariners have a storied history with Japanese players, from the iconic Ichiro Suzuki to All-Star pitchers Kaz Sasaki and Hisashi Iwakuma. But they are interested in Ohtani because he is one of the best available starting pitchers, regardless of country of origin. Seattle is also open-minded to the pitcher/designated hitter role Ohtani is said to covet, according to one source.
The Mariners have used 17 starting pitchers this season, due in part to Iwakuma's absence with a shoulder injury. Ariel Miranda and Yovani Gallardo are the only pitchers to make more than 20 starts for Seattle this season, and they have combined for an ERA north of 5.00. The Mariners must acquire a durable No. 1 starter to succeed Felix Hernandez; they could do so with Ohtani at a relatively low cost, simply because of the Collective Bargaining Agreement's provisions on international amateurs.
The Rangers have extensive history with Ohtani, between Daniels' trip to Japan and years of background work by assistant general manager Josh Boyd. Ohtani had a favorable opinion of Rangers officials during their courtship in 2012, and he developed an even greater familiarity with the organization by following Darvish during the right-hander's five and a half seasons there. The Rangers also retain the support personnel and cultural knowledge that helped Darvish thrive in Texas almost immediately.
Like the Yankees, the Rangers acquired international bonus allotments to aid in their financial appeal to Ohtani. And like the Yanks, the Rangers have multiple rotation vacancies to fill entering 2018.
The rules: An international player is eligible to sign with a Major League team between July 2 through June 15 of the next year if he is at least 17 or will turn 17 by the end of the first season of his contract.
According to the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, every team gets at least $4.75 million to spend on international prospects. Any team receiving a Competitive Balance Round A pick in the Draft gets $5.25 million in international bonus pool money. Additionally, teams receiving a Competitive Balance Round B pick get $5.75 million to spend on international prospects.
A club can trade as much of its international pool money as it would like, but there is a limit -- 75 percent of a team's initial pool -- to how much one team can acquire.
The teams: The A's, Astros, Braves, Cardinals, Cubs, Dodgers, Giants, Nationals, Padres, Reds, Royals and White Sox will not be able to sign international prospects for more than $300,000 during the 2017-18 period because they are in the maximum penalty. They will still be able to use all of their pool money. The Angels, Blue Jays, D-backs, Rays, Red Sox and Yankees are now out of the penalty and no longer limited to signing players for $300,000 or less.