If you have a chance to add the next Babe Ruth, you have to at least look into it.
No one knows for sure if Shohei Ohtani will truly become baseball’s next great legend, but the 23-year-old phenom out of Japan has everyone interested in him, anyway. In 2016, Ohtani posted a 1.86 earned run average in 140 innings pitched with a fastball that reportedly reached 100 and a comparable slider for the Nippon Fighters. If that’s all he did, he’d be another great pitching coming over from Japan. But the fact that he also hit .322/.416/.588 with 22 home runs as a part-time designated hitter has major league clubs salivating at the thought of him instantly boosting every aspect of their team for the low low price of one roster slot.
To make things even more enticing for MLB clubs (and maybe or maybe not pointing out some flaws in the system), Ohtani is merely an international prospect as he is being posted as a player under the age of 25, the cut-off for being an intentional free agent. Meaning he won’t be coming stateside with the massive contract that he probably deserves, similar to Yoenis Cespedes’ four-year, $36 million deal a few years back, but instead he’ll getting a signing bonus subject to the limitations of MLB’s international prospect bonus pools. Upon entering the majors, Ohtani would then be tied to a maximum salary of around $545,000 until he reaches arbitration, which would come in 2020, his age-26 season, at the earliest.
Why Ohtani in Cleveland works
Where the Cleveland Indians come into the picture should be obvious: They are the perfect fit for a talent like Ohtani. On the mound, he’d easily be the Tribe’s No. 3 or No. 4 starter out of the gate, potentially moving up as he proves himself to be a major league-caliber starter, especially if his 100-mph fastball is a reality.
The general consensus is that Ohtani could be a designated hitter two or three times a week, enough to get his powerful bat in the lineup, but also enough to give him days off before, during, and after his pitching days. Ohtani has already voiced his desire to be a two-way player, so that could effectively cut the number of potential landing spots in half, with the DH-less National League teams being left to their outdated, boring style of baseball while someone in the superior American League (maybe the Indians, just saying) would be enjoying baseball’s Great One. But you enjoy your premature pitching changes and bunts every nine at-bats, NL. You enjoy that.
Getting Ohtani into the Indians lineup isn’t very hard either — again, assuming his skills translate to Major League Baseball. With the Indians roster the way it is right now, before any free agent signings, Ohtani is easily the DH three days a week when he’s not pitching. Edwin Encarnacion would slide to first base, just as he did last season when Carlos Santana needed a day off. Edwin playing first base three days a week might not be ideal, but if it means making room for a player like Ohtani, I make the move every time.
On the field, there are no issues finding a fit for Ohtani. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say, in a vacuum, the Indians are the best fit for Ohtani’s statistical career.
But with that said...
Why it will never happen
Look, I’m gonna level with you. I did a lot of driving over the Thanksgiving weekend, and a lot of it was spent mindlessly listening to MLB Network Radio to keep myself awake. With free agency at a standstill until Ohtani signs somewhere, it’s all the hosts were talking about. So I got myself sort of hyped up for the idea that the Indians might sneak in and grab Ohtani in the middle of the night and laugh directly in Jerry DiPoto’s face. But it’s never going to happen.
With the current international prospect posting rules (which, by the way, were extended another year just for Ohtani), any team looking to sign Ohtani will need to send up to $20 million, the maximum posting amount allowed under the current rules, to the Nippon Fighters. “Dolanz is cheep” isn’t a thing anymore, but that would be almost 16 percent of the Tribe’s Opening Day payroll in 2017.
And we haven’t even got to the part about paying Ohtani himself.
As previously discussed, Ohtani is not going to make much money as a major leaguer until we enter the Swingin’ Twenties. Understandably, he’s probably going to be looking for a huge signing bonus to make up for that, and the Indians just can’t give him one.
According to NBC Sports, the Indians only have $10,000 left of their bonus pool money for this posting period which runs through June. Part of that is a good thing, because it means the Indians are spending on international prospects, and their farm system is stacked because of it. But there are teams like the New York Yankees, Texas Rangers and Minnesota Twins that can offer well over $3 million, and the Seattle Mariners just made a trade with the sole intention of getting more money to pay Ohtani. Even if the Indians had the money, the competition is just too fierce, too many teams are gunning for this guy and he knows it, and he wants to capitalize on it.
Just last week, Ohtani’s representatives sent out a literal quiz for teams to complete and send back to the two-way player. The quiz needed to know everything from spring training facilities, development philosophies, and how Ohtani was assimilate into the city. I just don’t know how the Indians compete with the Yankees and Mariners, who both have deep histories with Japanese players and the massive popularity draw that Ohtani is surely looking for. The Indians would have no problem selling Ohtani on joining the team, a winning club that is one-year removed from a World Series, but everything else is iffy at best.
To my knowledge, the Indians haven’t made any serious runs at Ohtani, but I would have to think they are least peaking around. Because, why wouldn’t you? What if he saw Major League once and secretly in love with Cleveland and willing to come here on $10,000 and a prayer? You can’t pass that up.