John McGrath

How Japan’s biggest talent just might end up with the Mariners

Let Shohei Otani pitch, let him hit or even both? This could be a question for Seattle Mariners GM Jerry Dipoto if things fell into place the right way.
Let Shohei Otani pitch, let him hit or even both? This could be a question for Seattle Mariners GM Jerry Dipoto if things fell into place the right way. The Associated Press

A potential big-league superstar, whose name you might not recognize, could end up in a Seattle uniform because of a rules change you might have missed.

I’ll be surprised if the Mariners make it happen, but then, I’m surprised the world-champion Chicago Cubs are in line to visit a White House soon to be occupied by Donald Trump.

Before getting into the how-he-could-but-probably-won’t situation regarding the Mariners, a few facts:

Shohei Otani plays in Japan for the Nippon Ham Fighters. He’s 23, throws right, hits left. More to the point, he’s a staff ace with a fastball that’s been clocked at 102 MPH, as well as a slugger with light-tower power.

This past season, Otani was named as both the top pitcher and top designated hitter in the Pacific League. Out of 254 Most Valuable Player votes, he was named in first place on 253 of them.

The immediate comparison to such a prodigious dual threat is Babe Ruth, whose talent inspired the adjective “Ruthian.” Another is Rick Ankiel, about whom many adjectives were applied, none referring to his virtually forgotten last name.

Otani seems determined to showcase his versatile skill set in Major League Baseball. Although Otani will remain in Japan through 2017, the Ham Fighters are braced for the certainty he’ll be gone, likely sooner than later.

Here is where the new rules regarding international free agents are relevant: Teams no longer can offer contracts with eight-figure bonuses to international players younger than 25. The Mariners, for instance, are limited to an annual signing-bonus pool of $4.75 million. That’s $4.75 million for an entire class of international kids, not $4.75 million per prospect.

The bonus cap deprives Otani from scoring the luck-for-life jackpot that would have awaited him under the last collective bargaining agreement, but for an athlete anxious to compete against the best, there’s more to life than the almighty yen.

“I think money is not a matter for Shohei,” Ham Fighters manager Hideki Kuriyama recently told the Kyodo News. “I think what he has in mind is when and what kind of batters he’ll face.”

Acquiring Otani would be what you might call an expensive bargain. Any big-league club that signs him will be required to write the Ham Fighters a $20 million compensation check. So there’s that, along with the bonus capped at $4.75 million.

On the other hand, he’d play for the MLM minimum through 2019 — $2 million over three years — before qualifying for a more lucrative pay level.

Add the bill up, and the total comes to three seasons at $26.75 million, any definition of reasonable in the same world where closer Aroldis Chapman agreed Wednesday to a five-year, $86 million deal with the Yankees.

Ah, the Yankees. For Otani, they offer the brand name, the mystique, the New York City allure: If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere.

But due to the rule revision regarding international free agent bonuses, there won’t be the kind of bidding war generally won by the heavyweight franchises. If the Mariners are willing to invest $26.75 million for three years of a top-of-the-rotation starter/middle-of-the-order hitter, Otani surely would ponder Seattle as a destination.

The ownership might have changed, but the association with Japan is deep: Nintendo stepped up to preserve big-league baseball in Seattle, where closer Kazuhiro Sasaki helped the Mariners to the 2000 American League Championship Series, a year before right fielder Ichiro Suzuki helped them make history.

I’m not sure how closely Shohei Otani followed the Mariners during his childhood, but I suspect he knows why the Hall of Fame plaque destined for Ichiro will be molded with an “S” atop the bill of the cap.

That a multi-dimensional talent might wind up in Seattle is not crazy. What’s crazy is the dream of putting a multi-dimensional talent to use.

A starting pitcher spending his off-days as a DH: It’s not uncommon in high school or college, but is it feasible in the major leagues? Otani throws gas, with a reliably accurate slider as his secondary pitch. Do you want this guy batting four or five times a game, running the bases, sliding into harm’s way around the infield?

That would be a call for Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto to make. Until he gets such a chance — if he gets such a chance — I’m having fun imagining Babe Ruth resurrected in the guise of the Japanese free agent who turns down the Yankees and settles in Seattle.

John McGrath: @TNTMcGrath

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