Shohei Ohtani has begun the process of selecting his new MLB home, and Padres fans have good reason to be hopeful this holiday season:
For the casual baseball fan, all this hub-bub over a Japanese player may seem overblown. Hideo Nomo broke into the league in 1995 and has been followed by over two dozen pitchers, many of whom have had great success in MLB. Ichiro Suzuki broke onto the scene in 2001 and is now nearing the end of a first-ballot Hall of Fame career. So what’s so special about Shohei Ohtani that makes him the talk of the sport? Well, there are a few factors:
- He’s the best pitcher in Japan, and it’s not even close. He might be the best pitching prospect in baseball. He has a fastball that can consistently exceed 100mph (it’s been clocked at 102) that he commands in all quadrants of the zone. He has a devastating frisbee slider and a splitfinger/change that both grade as plus pitches, and he commands them as well. He’s a 6’5” righty with a broad frame and the smooth mechanics to handle the stuff deep into games and throughout a long season. For most of the teams in the league, he’d slot in as the Ace of the rotation right away.
- He might be the best hitter in Japan, he has experience playing the outfield, and he’s expressed interest in doing so as well as pitching. He’s been used by his team, the Nippon Ham Fighters, as their DH for the past two seasons, and he won the league’s home run derby in 2016. At the end of the 2016 season, he made the league’s “Top Nine” list as the top pitcher... and the top DH. He’s a legit lefty power bat. Can you think of a team that can use a legit lefty power bat? Hmm... How the Padres would deploy such a player remains to be seen, but the team is willing to be flexible to get him the at-bats he’d like to have.
- He’s walking away from millions of dollars to come across the Pacific. If he were to wait until he was 25 to come over, he would potentially draw a $200m+ contract immediately. Instead, the 23-year-old is subject to the international amateur signing rules, which limits teams to a pool of roughly $5m total for the year, and the Padres are still under consideration even though they only have $300k left to spend this signing period. The team that signs him will be required to pay his Japanese team a $20m posting fee, but that’s peanuts compared to the nine-figure contract he’d draw on the open market. Whoever signs him will pay him the same as a rookie player, only required to pay the league minimum for the first three years of service time, then climbing the arbitration ladder after that. A team might sign him to an extension and buy out some of his free agency, but the Commissioner’s Office will be watching this case closely to ensure that teams are following the rules and that no agreements are in place that violate the Collective Bargaining Agreement.
Whoever signs Shohei Ohtani will have a bona fide stud two-way player at an unbelievable bargain price. Once the MLB Commissioner’s Office and Nippon Professional Baseball agreed on a modified posting agreement for him, he was posted on Friday, December 1st and has until December 22nd to sign with a team. He signed an agreement with Nez Balelo of CAA Sports to be his agent, and Balelo sent a questionnaire to all thirty teams, requesting responses in English as well as Japanese. The Padres submitted their response, and they liked it so much that the Padres are now one of seven teams in the hunt for this coveted player. This brings us to a hugely important question:
Why would Shohei Ohtani want to play for the San Diego Padres?
The Padres have been apparently laying the groundwork for this moment for quite some time. Here is an admittedly incomplete list of factors that may play into Ohtani’s interest in joining the Padres organization:
- The Padres have had a working relationship with Ohtani’s team, the Nippon Ham Fighters. This agreement was in place since 2008 and just expired at the end of October.
- Each of the last two years, Ohtani and the Ham Fighters have come to Peoria each February to work out in the spring training facility shared by the Padres and the Seattle Mariners.
- Padres GM A.J. Preller signed Yu Darvish as an international professional free agent in 2012 while he was with the Texas Rangers. Darvish was playing for the same team Ohtani plays for now, the Nippon Ham Fighters. Ohtani wears Darvish’s #11.
- A.J. Preller, then with the Rangers, tried to sign Ohtani at age 18 when he graduated high school.
- Logan White, Padres director of Pro Scouting, played significant roles in the signings of Takashi Saito and Hiroki Kuroda while he was with the Los Angeles Dodgers.
- Logan White, then with the Dodgers, also tried to sign Ohtani at age 18 when he graduated high school.
- Former Padres General Manager and longtime front office member Randy Smith now works for the Nippon Ham Fighters.
- Seiichiro Nagakagi, former athletic trainer for the Fighters, is now the Padres’ Director of Applied Sports Science. He worked with Ohtani during his rookie year to integrate strength training into his routine.
- Acey Kohorogi works with the Padres as an advisor for their Pacifc Rim operations. During his time with the Dodgers, he helped facilitate the signing and integration of such Asian players as Hideo Nomo, Takashi Saito, Hiroki Kuroda, Chan Ho Park and Hong-Chih Kuo.
- Hideo Nomo works for the Padres.
- Takashi Saito works for the Padres.
- Akinori Otsuka works for the Padres.
- Ohtani’s agent, Nez Balelo, is a San Diego native.
- Padres manager Andy Green spent a year playing in Japan in 2007 for - you guessed it - the Nippon Ham Fighters, so he’s familiar with the culture and the types of adjustments a foreigner will have to make.
- Ohtani prefers to play for a team without an established Japanese star.
- Ohtani wants to pitch and hit. The Padres have recent history with the Christian Bethancourt experiment and have demonstrated the flexible thinking to get Ohtani the at-bats to make him both a productive hitter and an ace pitcher. Whether he sees time in the field or just gets chances as a pitch hitter, the Padres have the rare mix of roster flexibility and time for experimentation to find a balance for the precocious talent.
I’m sure there are a plethora of other little tidbits that point his compass needle to San Diego. With the recent extension signed by Preller, it’s clear that he has ownership’s support in facilitating his goals, and it appears that acquiring Shohei Ohtani has been on Preller’s “to-do” list for a long, long time. We may have to wait a couple of weeks to see whose dotted line he signs, but the Padres may be awfully close to pulling off one of the biggest coups in baseball history. It’s an exciting time to be a Padres fan!