Shohei Ohtani, in all likelihood, is on his way to the United States. And his presence has put Major League Baseball free agency on hold as every team lines up for a chance to persuade the 23-year old Japanese superstar to join their club.
The man who has frequently been coined “The Japanese Babe Ruth” has already built a somewhat mythical reputation among baseball fans. Ohtani has uncorked a 102-mph fastball, which broke the NPB record for pitch velocity. He has launched 500-foot home runs and even won his league’s Home Run Derby in 2016.
In his past two NPB seasons, Ohtani has hit .326/.414/.570 over 525 at-bats with 30 home runs. In that same time period, he has struck out 203 batters over 165.1 IP and collected a tidy 2.07 ERA.
Ohtani is not only unique in his on-field skill set but also with his marketability. Bonafide international stars do not grow on trees. And they certainly don't often come so cheaply.
Because Ohtani seems intent on entering the Major Leagues at 23-years old instead of 25, the new age when an international player can become a free agent, he is leaving literally hundreds of millions of dollars on the table to jumpstart his career on the sport's greatest stage. This means that, for only a $20 million pittance to his current club Nippon Ham Fighters, a meager signing bonus, and a MLB rookie contract, any team in baseball could afford an organization-altering talent.
It's one of the weirdest free agent situations in modern baseball history. Ohtani could easily stay in Japan, where he made ¥270M last season (about $2.4M USD), for two more seasons and make bank in 2019. Instead this courtship of Ohtani will be less representative of the typical free agent bidding war and more like big-name college football programs going after a blue chip quarterback.
The Pirates are a long shot to land Ohtani. Coming off of two losing seasons, the team isn't in the best position to make an immediate World Series run. And Pittsburgh isn't the ideal place to build a multinational brand, nor is as easily accessible from Japan as the West Coast MLB cities are.
But, as Neal Huntington recently said in a radio interview, the Pirates will do "everything in their power" to separate themselves from the field and make a competitive pitch to the foreign superstar.
Even Trevor Williams, Pirates starting pitcher and most prolific tweeter, sounded off in hopes of goading Ohtani into coming to the 'Burgh.
Dear Mr. Ohtani,— Trevor Williams (@MeLlamoTrevor) November 29, 2017
You would be a great fit for the Pittsburgh Pirates! We have IC Light, Primanti Bros, pierogi races, and average to above average jokes in the clubhouse.
Yinz (?) will love it here in the 412.
I mean, if the promise of yellow beer and potato-filled dough isn't enough to convince Ohtani to come to "tahn", what will? Could they create a commemorative sandwich ("The Big Oh": Skipjack tuna, seaweed cole slaw, hoisin sauce, and, of course, french fries)? Turn the Hall of Fame Club into a Japanese steakhouse? Maybe they could present him with a solid gold parking chair or get him a bit part on the Netflix original series Mindhunter.
Wait, what did you say, J.J. Cooper of Baseball America? You can't do any of that stuff?
“Right now some very smart lawyers in every organization are assuredly looking to see if there are any loopholes that find that would aid their case in what they can offer Otani. But the current CBA is explicit that other than a bonus and a minor league contract, any other financial offers are a violation of the CBA and could lead to fines, suspensions for players and/or front office officials, voided contracts or other penalties. Teams can’t offer Otani an opt out. They can’t sign Otani’s parents to a massive personal services contract. They can’t even promise him a spot on their Opening Day roster.
And the last sentence of the introductory paragraph about circumvention makes it clear that the list of possible violations is “non-exclusive.” So even if a team gets creative and offers something not explicitly banned by the list of violations, the commissioner’s office could still come back and declare that such an offer is a violation of the CBA.”
Well that makes this exercise less fun. Okay, so now that the Shohei Ohtani Bridge is out of the question, how else can a place like Pittsburgh court a national superstar who is looking to become an international phenomenon?
Fortunately, Ohtani's camp has issued a questionnaire for interested teams (all of them) to address when they make their pitches to the dual-threat athlete. It's like a homework assignment for big league ball clubs and, even though I don't work for a baseball team nor have I been in a classroom in quite a while, I figured that I would take a shot at answering these questions and trying to convince Shohei Ohtani that Pittsburgh is the place to be.
Dear Mr. Ohtani,
Thank you for taking the time to entertain the Pittsburgh Pirates' offer. I'm sure that you and your agent have been busy helping up all of the team executives who are tripping over themselves to acquire your services. And I'm sure that those other teams who are pitching their clubs and cities as the best in America would look at Pittsburgh as inadequate.
Well we in Pittsburgh have a word for those kinds of people. We call them "jagoffs".
Pittsburgh is the City of Champions. A town that was built upon the steel industry, persevered through its collapse, and rebuilt itself as a hub for technology, education, and medicine. We pride ourselves on our toughness, our resilience, and our commitment to our sports teams.
While our town may lack the glitz and glamor of New York or Los Angeles, it has a certain charm that you can't find anywhere else.
“An evaluation of Shohei’s talent as a pitcher and/or a hitter"
Shohei, you're a great ballplayer. But you don't need us to tell you that you're good. (Or do you? We could totally just tell you about how good you are, if you want). Your fastball is stellar; good enough that it could get you to the Majors all on its own. But you're more than just a live arm. Your mechanics, poise, and athleticism are excellent and that worm-killing splitter you throw would fit perfectly in the Pirates' groundball-centric defense.
Oh, and you can hit! That's pretty cool, too. While its your right arm that will make every baseball manager's mouth water, your powerful left-handed bat is what makes you unique. The Pirates could really use your presence on the bench and in the lineup on days when you're pitching.
And if that last bit doesn't sound as impressive as a position as an American League designated hitter, just think of how much more valuable you'd be as the best hitting pitcher in the major leagues. There are plenty of good designated hitters that focus their whole professional lives on hitting. Come to the N.L., become the only pitcher to hit fifth in the batting order, and win an endless string of Silver Sluggers.
“Player development, medical, training and player performance philosophies and capabilities"
Hey! This is a thing that the Pirates actually do very, very well. Pittsburgh is a hub for medical innovation and the Pirates, with head trainer Todd Tomczyk, take their players' health seriously. The Pirates started using Omegawave, wearable technology that measures stress, back in 2016 and even have sensory deprivation tanks on site at PNC Park that Mark Melancon would spend 45 minutes floating in before every home game.
From a player development standpoint, the Pirates have overhauled their entire system to focus on getting the most of their players, specifically their pitchers. Travis Sawchik, who wrote that Omegawave article, penned an entire book about how the Pirates' forward thinking helped them field a world class team despite being in a comparatively small market.
What you're trying to do, both pitch and hit in the Majors, is going to be very difficult. Pitching every five days instead of once a week will be challenging enough. Throwing in regular at-bats and possibly outfield innings into the mix will make things even tougher. You're going to need the most innovative training staff in the league behind you to keep you healthy and the Pirates have that training staff.
And wait until you meet Ray Searage. He's a gem!
“Major League, Minor League, and Spring Training facilities"
PNC Park is the nicest ballpark in the entire world. You've hit some serious bombs in Japan, Shohei, but how many of them landed in a freakin' river? That's a thing that could definitely happen if you play the majority of your games in Pittsburgh.
And it's not like you're going to be spending a lot of time in the Minor Leagues (wait, am I allowed to say that?), but those are pretty nice, too. I mean, the Altoona Curve have a roller coaster in their outfield! That's dope.
Bradenton kind of sucks, but the Grapefruit League is in Florida. Everything sucks in Florida.
“Resources for Shohei’s cultural assimilation"
I'll be honest, I'm not sure how to answer this question. I'm sure that the Pirates will have all of the appropriate personnel to make you feel comfortable in Pittsburgh. But, heck, if you want somebody to show you around town, I'll do it myself. (You haven't been to Pittsburgh until you've been served Polish food by tiny old women in a church gymnasium).
And, while the Pirates' most recent foray into the Asian market ultimately would up being pretty rocky, South Korean import Jung-ho Kang did seem to get along with American culture pretty well. In 2015, when asked what he liked most about the country, Kang answered, "Girls" and "Steak". Those answers is pretty goddamn American.
They'll make sure that you don't fall in with a bad crowd. And hopefully find a translator that doesn't look like you.
HK Kim, Jung Ho Kang’s translator, said he’s gotten a lot of autograph requests from Pirates fans thinking he’s Jung Ho. Good work, America.— Stephen J. Nesbitt (@stephenjnesbitt) April 13, 2015
“A detailed plan for integrating Shohei into the organization"
You have stated that you want to both pitch and hit in the Major Leagues and you'll get to do exactly that with the Pirates. In fact, you can pretty much do whatever you want. Want to start on the mound one day and in right field the next? As long as the trainer says that you're healthy, that's cool. We could use the help!
With Andrew McCutchen set to fade away as the face of the Pirates franchise, we're prepared to shift all of our marketing away from "Cutch" and towards you. You'll be THE guy in the Pirates clubhouse. Your face will be emblazoned all over town.
You'll be the biggest star in a town full of world-renowned names. The Sidney Crosby of the diamond. The Jeff Goldblum of the North Shore. Michael Keaton might let you try on his Batman costume. The world could be yours, Shohei!
“Why the city and franchise are a desirable place to play / Relevant marketplace characteristics”
I don't know if you've heard, but Pittsburgh is one of America's most livable cities. And it's not just me saying it, it's a bunch of other bloggers fishing for clicks as well!
Pittsburgh has recently gotten praise for its bustling restaurant and bar scene. But the most compelling reason for Pittsburgh's livability is its price, which should be interesting to you, considering you're going to be working for relative peanuts for the first few years of your MLB career.
Now I know that you value your image and your legacy as a baseball player more than your finances, but I would be remiss to not mention that the Pirates can actually offer you significantly more money than most other teams in the majors! It's not often that we at Bucs Dugout get to talk about the Pirates being in a strong financial position, so we're going to flaunt it whenever possible.
The Pirates have about $2.2M left in their international bonus pool, which is more than any team in the league other than the New York Yankees, Minnesota Twins or Texas Rangers. Sure, you could just sign with one of those teams. But, when you factor in cost of living (It's 142% more expensive to live in New York than Pittsburgh), you're getting more bang for your buck in Pittsburgh than you're getting anywhere else!
Plus, these luxury condominiums keep popping up in the hippest parts of town that have "Young millionaire who will probably not live in Pittsburgh forever" written all over them. You could have a saltwater pool AND a dog grooming studio in your apartment building. All for less than a crummy studio apartment in Manhattan.
There you have it, Shohei. I'm sure Neal Huntington and the Pirates brass will also provide you with some pretty good reasons why Pittsburgh is the place for you, but just know that your presence is our little part of Pennsylvania would be very much appreciated.