The team employing the National League MVP wants to trade him. What’s most fascinating about what promises to be one of the most dramatic winters in baseball history is that the Marlins’ shopping of Giancarlo Stanton might rank as the game’s second-most compelling story line.
Shohei Ohtani is coming to America, and if he succeeds, he might change the game.
How many athletes have accomplished that?
We’ve heard the phrase “game-changer” applied to Kordell Stewart and Tim Tebow, to Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders and Michael Vick, to Michael Jordan and LeBron James. Usually, the game-changer either fails or, at best, challenges previous standards of greatness.
Jackson might have been the best two-sport athlete of his generation, but for all of his spectacular accomplishments, he hit .250 in the big leagues, producing more than 30 homers in a season only once.
Baseball hasn’t featured a superstar who both pitched and played the field since Babe Ruth was with the Red Sox, back when superstars didn’t have to compete with black athletes, hit sliders or take cross-country flights. Once he went to a team intent on winning the World Series every year, Ruth pitched 31 innings over 2,084 games with the Yankees.
Ohtani could be unique as a player and a trendsetter.
The 23-year-old is leaving Japan before he could make a killing as a free agent at age 25. He wants to play the field and pitch. Only outdated thinking can stop him.
Ohtani has run to first base in 3.8 seconds, which would make him one of the fastest players in the big leagues. He has thrown fastballs that reached 102 miles per hour. He is 6-4 and 200 pounds and has hit multiple home runs that have traveled 500 feet or more.
He has served as an ace and a cleanup hitter in Japan. If he can succeed on the mound, at the plate and in the field (or as a designated hitter) for a major league team, he might change the way scouts view exceptional two-way high school and college players.
Ohtani could even change the way games are managed. He might want to be a starting pitcher in the majors, which would allow him to play right field or DH in other games, but what if he was used as a reliever?
He could play right field and come to the mound to pitch the eighth or ninth. Or he could swap positions with a pitcher, face a key righthanded batter, and then trot back to the outfield.
The Twins are likely to pursue Ohtani. They are unlikely to sign him. They have the third-most international bonus money of any MLB team, with $3.25 million. Ohtani is most likely to choose an American League team on a coast, one large enough to enable him to make a massive amount of money in endorsements.
Seattle, where Ichiro Suzuki thrived, would be logical. The Yankees, because of their global appeal, would make sense. If Ohtani was willing to forgo the possibility of at-bats as a DH, the Dodgers would be in play.
Who knows? Maybe Ohtani secretly wants to play for the Cubs, or the Blue Jays.
The Twins would seem to offer few advantages, other than being an AL team with bonus money and a desperate need for pitching.
Because the competition for Ohtani is likely to be fierce, the Twins might be able to take advantage of the frenzy in a different way. They could trade their international bonus money to another bidder in exchange for a pitcher.
Japanese players have had mixed results in the big leagues. Ichiro Suzuki hit .350 in his first season in the majors at age 27, and .312 over 17 years. Hideki Matsui, Hideo Nomo and Yu Darvish have taken star turns.
Twins fans might feel burned by Asian signings because of Tsuyoshi Nishioka of Japan and ByungHo Park of South Korea. That would be myopic. If the Twins had two draftees from California fail (and they have had many more than that), would you recommend they stop signing players born on the West Coast?
Ohtani will have much to prove, and he has the tools to prove it. He could become the best Japanese player to compete in the big leagues, and baseball’s best two-way player since Ruth wore red.