As expected, it was announced today that Shohei Ohtani will be posted by the Nippon Ham Fighters of Nippon Professional Baseball later tonight. The Japanese superstar now has three weeks to sign with an MLB team, and the Dodgers are expected to be heavily involved. So are 29 other teams. However, instead of looking at Ohtani’s obvious talent (which I did last year), or do the Dodgers’ homework for them, I think it’s a good idea to recap and reflect upon the Dodgers’ long history with him. It’s more unique than most, and could be one of the deciding factors if the Dodgers end up signing him.
Ohtani’s posting is the latest step in what has now been a nine-year pursuit for the Dodgers. When Ohtani was graduating high school in 2012, the team made a very serious effort to sign him. In September, then-scouting director Logan White said the following to the Japanese media, while also (tongue-in-cheek) showing somewhat creepy persistence in pursuing the Dodger target:
I think he may have the same kind of potential [Clayton Kershaw has].
White’s record on international signings was not perfect, but he was near-spotless in Asia, having a hand in signing Hiroki Kuroda, Hyun-Jin Ryu, and Takashi Saito. That track record and quote make you pay attention. In the same media session, White revealed that the Dodgers have been actively scouting Ohtani since he was a freshman in high school, all the way back in 2009. Ironically, the bonus that the Dodgers offered to Ohtani in 2012 was likely significantly higher than what they are allowed to offer now.
Before the NPB draft in October 2012, it was all but certain that Ohtani was going to sign with an MLB team. At the time, the Dodgers were viewed as favorites. Ohtani even held a press conference telling NPB teams to not draft him. In the NPB draft, any team can draft any player in the first round, and if the same player is selected multiple times, the winner is decided by a random drawing. Fellow high school phenom Shintaro Fujinami was selected by five teams despite having interest from MLB scouts himself. The Fighters were the only team to ignore Ohtani’s pleas to not draft him, and thus won exclusive negotiating rights. In the subsequent month, they made multiple sales pitches, including detailing how they would allow him to pursue his two-way dreams and the following (if you read Japanese):
When Nippon Ham drafted Ohtani, he wasn’t going to sign with them. They pitched him based on the track record of NPB players going to MLB, among other things. They published their presentation, and it’s available here: https://t.co/gBWW1o6du4
— Patrick Newman (@npbtracker) November 30, 2017
Ohtani elected to stay in NPB, and the grand two-way player experiment was mostly a success. This ultimately proved to be a good decision, because the Dodgers almost certainly would not have let him continue his career as a hitter. His present chance of making MLB history has arrived because he picked the team that gave him that chance.
The Dodgers did not allow their loss of Ohtani or a large amount of turnover in their international scouting department (including White’s departure) to stop their pursuit. In some instances, they almost went too far. At this time last year, Japan hosted a set of pre-World Baseball Classic friendly matches with the Netherlands and Mexico. Adrian Gonzalez was in attendance. He did not play in the series, but he made a bit of a sales pitch, giving Ohtani a bag:
가방 받음ㅋㅋㅋㅋㅋㅋㅋㅋㅋㅋ pic.twitter.com/EBLAPqznEA
— 맘 (@_KIMMOM) November 11, 2016
As well as a jersey:
— Puro Beisbol (@PuroBeisbolUSA) November 12, 2016
MLB was not happy about the recruitment job, and (rightfully) strongly warned the Dodgers about potential tampering:
The media learned on May 4 that the MLB issued a stern warning to the Los Angeles Dodgers because Adrian Gonzalez gave Shohei Otani a bag of baseball items (autographed uniform, Dodger merchandise) during an exhibition game with the Mexico national team last fall. The MLB also issued a general warning to teams about coming into contact with Otani while the Nippon Ham Fighters were in Arizona for spring camp in February.
The Dodgers eased up on the direct recruitment efforts, but were spotted scouting Ohtani multiple times this season, including many times during his long rehab from a severe hamstring injury suffered in April. Andrew Friedman and Orel Hershiser went to Japan to watch Ohtani play in mid-August. He did not pitch on the field in that stretch, though he threw several bullpen sessions. On the day of Ohtani’s final NPB pitching start, the recently departed Alex Anthopoulos was in attendance. Ohtani pitched a complete game two-hit shutout, striking out ten batters and walking five. His fastball touched 101 mph. He also hit clean-up and had a single in four plate appearances. His slider was clearly working on that day:
The Dodgers have wanted Ohtani for nine years. They still want him now. They’d be stupid not to. Unlike 2012, however, they cannot be seen as favorites. They have a shot, though. They have the long history, and they have some extremely creative minds in their front office who have as good a chance as any in the National League to make a two-way player actually work. Even so, it’s hard to overlook how much easier hitting would be with the DH available. And, even if it’s only a minor consideration, the Dodgers are still capped at a $300k signing bonus. Signing Ohtani is not impossible, it’s just improbable.
I’ve written before how much I dislike seeing Ohtani acquiesce to MLB’s blatant greed. That is still true. However, I still very badly want to see him in a Dodger uniform, or at least in a uniform of a team I don’t hate. Ohtani has three weeks to sign with an MLB team under the band-aided posting system agreed to before Thanksgiving. By the 22nd, we’ll all know who
screwed over signed Ohtani. It’s going to feel like forever, but resolution is coming soon.