SportsPulse: USA TODAY Sports’ Steve Gardner discusses the top landing spots for two-way star Ohtani, the player who is being called the Japanese Babe Ruth. USA TODAY Sports
Japanese two-way star Shohei Ohtani, mostly a mystery to American fans, has shown some of his personality traits during the run-up to his incursion into the big leagues.
For one, Ohtani clearly doesn’t put money first, considering he’s forsaking a likely nine-digit contract by opting to join the majors now instead of waiting two more years. No. 2, he seems to have a knack for pulling surprises.
While his predilection for a team on the West Coast came as no big shock, Ohtani stunned baseball observers when he excluded the New York Yankees and to a lesser extent the Boston Red Sox from his final seven clubs under consideration. The Yankees, who have featured such Japanese stars as Hideki Matsui and Masahiro Tanaka, were generally regarded as the front-runners for Ohtani’s services.
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Instead, the pitcher-outfielder reportedly met Monday with the San Francisco Giants and Los Angeles Dodgers, two of the remaining finalists along with the Seattle Mariners, San Diego Padres, L.A. Angels, Texas Rangers and Chicago Cubs.
The list provides a couple more surprises, one of them potentially significant. Though Ohtani has not played in the outfield since 2014 and may have an easier route in his quest to both pitch and hit regularly as a DH, he included only three American League teams among the seven.
An even bigger eye-opener is the Padres remaining in contention, even though they haven’t had a winning season since 2010 and have embarked on a rebuilding project. Jumping into such an endeavor would be a turnoff for many a free agent, but could prove beneficial for Ohtani.
The Padres are under no pressure to win now, which would make it easier for them to accommodate Ohtani’s desire to play two ways and the logistical challenges that will present. San Diego even has a bit of experience in that regard after using catcher/outfielder Christian Bethancourt as a reliever for four games last season.
The experiment did not work, as Bethancourt struggled at the plate and on the mound before being demoted to the minors. But the Padres proved they have an open mind when it comes to unconventional thinking.
“It really comes down to the individual, and it takes a special individual,’’ Padres general manager A.J. Preller said of a two-way player during the GM meetings. “But again, in our organization you never want to say that something’s not possible.’’
The Padres also have a stacked farm system that came in third in Baseball America’s midseason rankings, an indication of better days ahead.
Moreover, the club has a number of Japanese connections that could make Ohtani’s transition easier, employing the likes of former major league pitchers Hideo Nomo and Takashi Saito, as well as a manager in Andy Green who played one season for Ohtani’s Japanese team, the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters.
Of course, all the contenders for Ohtani will highlight aspects of their organization and home base that might make him feel more comfortable.
The Giants, for example, have surely mentioned that the first Japanese player in the majors, pitcher Masanori Murakami, broke in with them in 1964. And they likely pointed out San Francisco’s substantial Asian population – 35% percent – and the presence of a Japantown in the city.
The Dodgers have several Japanese-speaking staffers, not to mention a manager, Dave Roberts, who was born in Okinawa to a Japanese mother. More significantly, the club has a history of acquiring Japanese pitchers like Nomo, Saito, Kaz Ishii, current Dodger Kenta Maeda and free agent Yu Darvish, who enjoyed the diverse L.A. vibe.
The Darvish connection could also play in favor of the Rangers, who nursed the former Fighters phenom through his transition to the majors in 2012 and were his only American team until a July trade to the Dodgers. Ohtani is known to idolize Darvish and has probably consulted with him.
The Mariners certainly will showcase their success with Japanese legend Ichiro Suzuki and former All-Star pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma, who’s still with the organization. The Angels can offer the chance to play alongside two likely future Hall of Famers in Mike Trout and Albert Pujols – maybe also throw in free Disneyland passes – while the Cubs and persuasive president of baseball operations Theo Epstein can display their 2016 World Series rings.
Until its recent weeding out, Ohtani’s camp hasn’t revealed which way he’s leaning. In reacting to Ohtani’s rejection, Yankees GM Brian Cashman may have lent some clarity to the process when he said, “I can’t change that we’re a big market and I can’t change we’re in the East.”
If those elements are indeed disqualifiers, it stands to reason the Padres and Mariners – West Coast clubs in relatively small markets – should be feeling good about their chances of landing Ohtani.
But that’s merely a conclusion from reading the tea leaves, a practice that figures to continue until the 23-year-old wunderkind reveals his decision ahead of the Dec. 22 deadline.
Gallery: Japan’s two-way sensation Shohei Ohtani
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