The Shohei Ohtani sweepstakes came and went with the Los Angeles Angels being the winners. However, his "free agency" was one of the most unique situations in MLB history where being the highest bidder financially meant nothing.
A recent conversation I had as well as thinking about it the entire offseason gave me an idea worth exploring.
While the Chicago Cubs, San Diego Padres, Los Angeles Dodgers, Seattle Mariners, San Francisco Giants and Texas Rangers were also finalists, I figured there would be a fun exercise of eliminating teams based on reports we saw and hearing what Ohtani wanted.
What was the best way to do this? Remove what Ohtani doesn't want. Over time, we started learning what his preferences were and so on.
In this exercise, I'll go step by step and eliminate teams one by one. Some teams will be "eliminated" twice if they fit that category and are italicized if they were previously taken out. Without further ado, here we go:
Round 1: Avoid the Spotlight
Eliminated: New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox, Los Angeles Dodgers, Chicago Cubs, Philadelphia Phillies, New York Mets
New York Yankees General manager Brian Cashman was the first GM to make an announcement that the Yankees were out, so I figured this would be fitting to start here. Ohtani didn't want to play for a huge market team, as indicated by Dylan Hernandez. Being in the spotlight means every move will either be praised or ridiculed.
Did he want to risk himself by ending up hitting .200 after two months and everyone calling for his head? Of course not. The teams listed above would've been a dangerous market to be in due to national coverage and pressure among the media/fans. You could argue the Toronto Blue Jays go in the spotlight with being Canada's only team, but we'll let it slide here since a few other sports teams in that market get more attention.
Other teams were also considered here, but they play a "little brother" role to another team in the same market, keeping them out of the spotlight.
5 down, 25 to go
Round 2: Avoid the National League, where the designated hitter does not exist
Eliminated: All National League teams (Dodgers, Cubs, Phillies, Mets) + San Francsico Giants, Colorado Rockies, San Diego Padres, Atlanta Braves, Arizona Diamondbacks, St. Louis Cardinals, Miami Marlins, Washington Nationals, Milwaukee Brewers, Pittsburgh Pirates, Cincinnati Reds
Ohtani likes to hit and this was an easy call even before he was officially posted. For those who didn't see, he would pitch once a week, have the two days before and after off, then hit for three games as a designated hitter with the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters.
Being in the National League hurts half of the league as the American League has the upperhand. The Colorado Rockies would've been intriguing given it's hitter-friendly atmosphere, but no national league team can play his bat frequently unless he was an outfielder, which is something he didn't do in NPB since 2014. It's doable, but ill-advised and he'd only come in as a pinch hitter besides the days he'd start.
17 down, 13 to go
Round 3: Avoid all Spring Training Grapefruit League (Florida) teams
Eliminated: (Marlins, Mets, Phillies, Pirates, Cardinals, Nationals) + Baltimore Orioles, Detroit Tigers, Houston Astros, Minnesota Twins, Tampa Bay Rays, Toronto Blue Jays
When putting the pieces together, Ohtani's seven finalists in free agency were all teams who use Arizona in Spring Training. Prior to his posting, Ohtani had only been to two States in the USA: Arizona to train with the Fighters and Hawaii for the pennant trip in 2016 (and maybe even more trips).
It's possible that Ohtani liked working in the San Diego Padres facility in Peoria and enjoyed the training there. Either way, not having a Grapefruit League team as a finalist draws a round.
23 down, 7 to go
Round 4: Avoid a team that has a history of an established Japanese player
Eliminated: (Yankees, Dodgers, Red Sox) + Seattle Mariners, Texas Rangers
It's clear Ohtani didn't want to be compared to his fellow countrymen. People will always make a comparison as it's human nature, but playing on the same team that Ichiro Suzuki or Yu Darvish went to makes it even easier to look at the past. This is arguably the most demoralizing criteria for the American League teams listed knowing they have history,
I went with teams who had an established player or firm history with 4-5 significant years. Some teams have had guys in spurts or short term like the White Sox and Tadahito Iguchi, but no one has had a large Japanese history like the five teams mentioned above in my book.
25 down, 5 to go
While the five teams remaining don't agree with the seven official finalists, the Kansas City Royals, Oakland Athletics, Los Angeles Angels, Chicago White Sox and Cleveland Indians would be our unofficial contenders for the Ohtani sweepstakes.
This is our hypothetical look at each team available and trying to find info on their pitch:
The Indians nearly won the 2016 World Series and let Carlos Santana walk. Their rotation was already stacked, which wouldn't give a desperate need for Ohtani's services. Their lineup would've only needed a few DH at bats, but Cleveland is already a contender and could be patient with Ohtani if they buried him in the farm.
Financially, they didn't have the highest bid, but it's unclear what the team's pitch was to the two-way player. Reports indicated they wanted him, but were limited with resources. Cleveland also had the lowest international pool money among all teams.
Chicago White Sox:
The White Sox recently traded off their assets in Chris Sale and Jose Quintana, but have built up a top farm system as a result. Their sell should've been their hitter-friendly ballpark and it's porch making it easy to hit home runs.
General Manager Rick Hahn was quoted with quoting other famous quotes and felt it was a long shot to land Ohtani. Chicago may be a large market, but the Southsiders are still under the Cubs shadow. Like the Indians, they had doubt of landing him. Financially, Chicago was in the bottom tier of pool money.
Kansas City Royals:
The Kansas City Royals entered the offseason with three core players from their 2015 World Series Championship team becoming free agents. Eric Hosmer, Lorenzo Cain and Mike Moustakas are still free agents today at the time of this writing.
General Manager Dayton Moore did not feel the Royals were in the hunt to begin with. Kansas City's area is not as diverse and compared to other markets, would be obscure. The Royals front office viewed Ohtani as wishful thinking and were likely focused on wanting to retain some of their free agents.
Los Angeles Angels:
The Los Angeles Angels had the west coast on their side which could've been viewed as an advantage. Their biggest selling point? Having an MVP in Mike Trout. For a team that has been stuck in mediocrity, Trout has been the only reason the team gets national headlines, with only one postseason since he has been in Orange County.
General Manager Billy Eppler arguably gave the best presentation of the field with a more attractive offer than the rest. Entering the offseason, the Angels had one of the lowest international pool money funds available, but made a trade with the Minnesota Twins when the latter found out their were eliminated.
Like the Angels, Oakland A's selling point was certainly not their stadium. They focused on history, location and manager Bob Melvin.
Oakland spent most of their international pool money a year ago and were mostly cash-strapped, but still had more funds than the Angels prior to that trade.
This was the statement released by Ohtani's agent Nez Balelo of CAA.
“This morning, after a thorough, detailed process, Shohei Ohtani has decided to sign with the Los Angeles Angels. Shohei is humbled and flattered by all the time and effort that so many teams put into their presentations and sincerely thanks them for their professionalism. In the end, he felt a strong connection with the Angels and believes they can best help him reach his goals in Major League Baseball.
“I want to thank the clubs and everyone else for respecting our intent to make this very important process as private as possible. We were resolved to having a fair, methodical process. Teams clearly put in a lot of work, and we are grateful for that. The past few weeks also further demonstrated Shohei’s incredible thoughtfulness, attention to detail and determination to make an informed decision. He read every page of every presentation and listened to every word in each meeting, and he was so impressed that it was not an easy choice.
While there has been much speculation about what would drive Shohei’s decision, what mattered to him most wasn’t market size, time zone or league, but that he felt a true bond with the Angels. He sees this as the best environment to develop and reach the next level and attain his career goals. More than ever, I believe this is not only a special talent but a man of special character, and like everyone else I’m excited to see him in Major League Baseball.”Ohtani turned down three of the top four teams in international pool money right away (Pirates, Yankees, Twins). Money didn't factor into his decision, but did it affect how other teams approached him? Quite possibly.
It's as if being ranked near the bottom gave a few teams low confidence. This isn't true for all teams as the finalist Dodgers had the same funds as the White Sox, Athletics and Royals.
While the agent said the league didn't matter, having a DH vs no DH plays a huge role in being able to develop Ohtani and getting him at-bats without forcing him in the field. Based on the reports, Eppler's presentation killed it and won Ohtani over to draw that "connection". The most interesting thing is how there is "no promises" as the report indicates.
Mike Scioscia has been a stubborn manager and is known for managing like it's 2002. Can he be innovative? His press conference at the winter meetings hinted how the Angels wanted a pitcher. While there is no guarantee, the Angels will need to be patient with him and can't just ignore his hitting abilities. Even with the presentation, Eppler himself was stunned and fell in celebration.
Brian Cashman of the Yankees and Jon Daniels of the Rangers likely had the most crazy sounding offers on the table, but Ohtani shunned them for different reasons.
We can speculate the West Coast preference and eliminate even more in the field, but the finalists indicate that wasn't an issue since the A's were gone and the Rangers still existed at one point. The Angels fit the bill of being in the Cactus League, American League, having no significant NPB history and being out of the spotlight as second fiddle to the Dodgers in their market.
In the end, Mike Trout's presence could've eliminated all 29 other teams right away, but it makes you wonder how hard the others even tried to go for him. Did they just do a small presentation as a formality to say they're participating? Who put in the work for him? Everyone knew who he was, but did they even try or have any confidence?
That's a question we'll never know, as only the Cincinnati Reds made their pitch public.
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