- Shohei Ohtani stunned many observers by narrowing his list of teams down to (mostly) the West Coast. So where will the lauded Japanese star sign?
Are the Shohei Ohtani sweepstakes coming to an end? On Sunday night, a bevy of teams learned from the Japanese superstar’s representation that they are no longer in the running for his services. That includes the Yankees, who were widely presumed to be favorites for Ohtani, as well as—deep breath—the Red Sox, Mets, Blue Jays, Pirates, Twins, Diamondbacks, Brewers, Rays, Cardinals, White Sox, Nationals, Braves, and Athletics. On the other side of things are the lucky few: According to Yahoo Sports’ Jeff Passan, the Mariners and Giants will both meet with Ohtani in Los Angeles next week; the Padres are also on the docket, according to FanRag Sports’ Jon Heyman; and the Rangers, Dodgers, Angels and Cubs are apparently still in the race (or at least not openly out of it).
As we learn which teams have dropped out or stayed alive, numerous reports have emerged that Ohtani would like to sign with a West Coast team, and may also want to play in a smaller market. Add that to the already extensive list of possible Ohtani preferences—he wants to hit and pitch, play for a team with high-end facilities and for one that has experience with Japanese players and access to Japanese culture, but also not for a team that already has a Japanese player—that may or may not have outsize influence on his ultimate choice. It’s safe to say that no one truly knows what Ohtani wants, save that the usual factors don’t seem to apply. After all, the Yankees can offer hundreds of millions of dollars in the future as well as a place on a star-studded roster built to win this year and down the road in the biggest media market in the league, and he immediately rejected them.
Regardless, Sunday’s flurry of activity considerably narrowed the list of contenders. Aside from those already eliminated, a number of others are either longshots—Baltimore, Cincinnati, Miami and Philadelphia (a city that Ohtani apparently only wants to visit)—or didn’t publicly express interest, including Kansas City, Colorado and Detroit. That leaves the Mariners, Giants, Padres, Rangers, Dodgers, Angels and Cubs as meeting his parameters or still in the chase.
Which of those teams is likely in the lead? USA Today’s Bob Nightengale reports that the Mariners are considered by other general managers to be the favorite. That makes sense: Seattle is geographically right, a (relatively) small market, can offer him time at designated hitter or in the outfield alongside a rotation spot, and is well acquainted with Japanese players, having brought future Hall of Famer Ichiro Suzuki state-side back in 2001.
He also fits into the Mariners roster plans. Seattle’s rotation was a total mess last season thanks to injury: Ariel Miranda led the team in innings last season despite a 5.12 ERA. The Mariners have an ace in James Paxton, but he was limited to 136 frames due to persistent and worrisome arm troubles, and ace Felix Hernandez managed only 86 2/3 innings while getting tagged for a 4.36 ERA. If Ohtani is serious about being a two-way player, then the Mariners could use the help. Nelson Cruz has the DH spot on lockdown, but he turns 37 in July. In the outfield corners, meanwhile, the Mariners are rolling with light-hitting Ben Gamel in left and Mitch Haniger in right; the latter hit well last year, posting a 146 OPS+, but played only 96 games due to injury.
All of that should create plenty of available playing time for Ohtani, perhaps with the Mariners giving him two to three starts a week spread out in the outfield and at DH alongside his starts on the mound. Other teams, though, can more easily slot him in. The Giants, for example, desperately need help in the outfield—the team managed a putrid .685 OPS among all three spots there last year—and can make Ohtani a regular in either corner while still allowing him starts in the rotation. San Diego, too, can try Ohtani in left to form a formidable young outfield with him, Manuel Margot in center and top prospect Hunter Renfroe in right, and could desperately use his arm in a bottom-of-the-barrel rotation devoid of upside (unless you’re fond of staff ace Clayton Richard).
Neither the Giants nor Padres, though, offer Ohtani much in the way of contention. San Francisco is coming off a rough 98-loss season that exposed holes up and down the roster that even Ohtani can’t plug by himself. (That calculus does change somewhat if the Giants can finish a trade for NL MVP Giancarlo Stanton, as they’re reportedly close to doing.) San Diego, meanwhile, will be entering yet another year of a perpetual rebuild that hasn’t yielded much in the way of major league talent or success yet. If general manager A.J. Preller can sell Ohtani on the Padres’ potential after 273 losses over three seasons, then he’s clearly some kind of wizard.
Contention is far more in range for the six other teams still left, with the Dodgers, Astros and Cubs atop that list. Los Angeles has a ton of outfielders to find playing time for beyond Ohtani and more starting pitchers than most, but talent wins out in the end. Plus, the Dodgers can offer him the prospect of the most money down the road and a roster that was one win away from a championship while Chicago can flash its 2016 hardware and enviable roster as well. But neither the Dodgers nor Cubs (nor the Angels, for that matter) play in anything that could remotely be described as a small market.
If you want a true upset special, it’s Texas. Like the Mariners, the Rangers can offer Ohtani time in the rotation (where he’d instantly become the team’s ace) and in the outfield or at DH. Arlington is a smaller market, and crucially, the Rangers have experience with Japanese superstars, having been the home of Yu Darvish (himself a former member of Ohtani’s NPB team) for five-plus seasons. Texas also has the most money to offer right now, at $3.53 million, and while it’s clear that cash doesn’t rule everything around Shohei, that has to count for something.
Regardless, you can make a case for any of the teams left standing as being a good fit. All have flaws, all have strengths, but ultimately, it’s hard to say what matters most to Ohtani. One thing is for certain, though: We’re thankfully that much closer to MLB adding a truly dynamic talent.