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Nightengale: Japan’s ‘Babe Ruth’ has MLB Teams Dreaming Big

Nightengale: Japan’s ‘Babe Ruth’ has MLB Teams Dreaming Big
Shohei Ohtani. Photo: KYODO

He’s here, but he’s not here.

You can visualize him, but you can’t see him.

Shohei Ohtani, 23, the most fascinating man in baseball, is 7,000 miles away from baseball’s general manager meetings, but he’s on everyone’s mind, dominating all of the talk at the Waldorf Astoria in Orlando.

“I can’t remember anybody coming in,’’ New York Mets GM Sandy Alderson said, “creating this kind of interest. It will be fascinating to see what happens.’’

Ohtani, 6-foot-4, 215 pounds, called a hybrid of Dwight Gooden and Darryl Strawberry by one GM, is coveted by all 30 major league teams – and thanks to rare financial circumstances, all can actually fathom fitting him into their budget.

 Once he’s officially posted by the Nippon Ham Fighters, which should happen sometime before the end of the year, he’ll instantly become baseball’s most prized free agent.

“He has that allure, it grabs your attention,’’ says Seattle Mariners GM Jerry Dipoto, who has personally scouted him in Japan. “When you see a guy hit a ball 500 feet, and throw a ball 100-mph, it’s a pretty unique skillset. And he can run, too.

“This guy is so talented, it’s a joke.’’

He’s capable of winning 20 games as a starting pitcher, hitting 30 home runs as an outfielder, and becoming Major League Baseball’s greatest marketing tool since Bo Jackson.

“Everybody in baseball understands that he’s a talented player,’’ Angels GM Billy Eppler says, “but because he hasn’t trekked through the minor leagues and hasn’t garnered the social media and prospect attention, there’s uncertainty.

“And that uncertainty breeds intrigue.’’

One that has mesmerized the entire industry.

“I know this, whoever get him,’’ Dipoto says, “is getting one heck of a talent. He’s not only impressive as a ballplayer, he’s got the humility of a utility player.’’

Who else in the world would turn down a payday of at least $200 million by wanting to immediately play in the major leagues, instead of waiting two more years when teams can pay a foreign player 25 years or older as much as they desire?

“Honestly, that’s as impressive as anything,’’ says Perry Minasian, Atlanta Braves director of personnel. “That tells you a lot about the person and his character that he’s willing to come out now where he could have waited and cashed it in.

“I guarantee you the people around him aren’t saying, “Go.’ They’re saying, ‘Just wait two years.’ It’s the equivalent of hitting the Powerball and ripping up your ticket.

“It just add to the mystique and the intrigue of this guy.’’

Major League Baseball, which has been around since 1869, has never seen anything quite like him.

Babe Ruth was a two-time 20-game winner, and 11 times hit 40 or more home runs, but never in the same season. Martin Dihigo was a Hall of Fame second baseman and part-time starter in the Negro Leagues. John Ward won 47 games and hit .286 for the Providence Grays in 1879. Yet, no player has appeared in at least 10 games as a pitcher and position player in the same season since 1964.

Now we have Ohtani, who has been a two-way player throughout his entire five-year professional career in Japan, and has no plans to give it up now that he’s on the verge of coming to the USA once his team, the Nippon Ham Fighters, is able to post him.

He won’t become instantly rich, considering that he can only receive a signing bonus between $10,000 and $3.5 million, with only three teams able to even give him $1 million, topped by the Texas Rangers’ $3.5 million pool.

Yet, he could be the biggest global marketing sensation in baseball history, earning as much $30 million annually in endorsements.

He just has to live up to all of the hype, and judging from all of the GMs and executives who have seen Ohtani, they’re gambling a $20 million posting fee that he’ll be a perennial All-Star.

As a pitcher.

And a hitter.

If Ohtani keeps the same routine as he had in Japan, he’d start in the field until the day before his scheduled start, and the day after his start, whether it’s in the outfield in the National League or as a DH/outfielder in the American League.

Is it really possible?

“Babe Ruth did it, right?’’ Boston Red Sox GM Dave Dombrowski said. “He was pretty good.’’

The idea of a two-way player was discussed more this spring than at any time since the amateur draft was instituted in 1965, particularly with shortstop/pitcher Hunter Greene and first baseman/pitcher Brendan McKay drafted in the first four picks. The Reds are limiting Greene to the mound while McKay’s future still is open with the Tampa Bay Rays.

“To have two guys picked that high, it’s more than just an experiment,’’ Cincinnati Reds GM Dick Williams said, “it’s about the individual. But Ohtani is different than these two guys because of his age and the level of baseball where he’s already done it.

“As a baseball fan, we’re all intrigued what he can do here. When I saw him, just his poise and the way he carried himself, I was fascinated by him. I’m anxious to see him. Really, I think we’d all welcome it.’’

Says Rangers GM Jon Daniels: “I think it would take a unique skill set, both physical and mental, to allow for those skills to play out. But yeah, I think it’s possible.’’

Well, make that highly probable considering that once Ohtani is posted by the Ham Fighters, it’s his choice where he decides to play. And he has made it clear that even though his stardom likely would be on the mound, he wants to be an everyday player, too, whether it’s as a position player or a DH.

And while the Yankees may be the favorite to land him, they can’t grab their checkbook and outbid everyone. Not this time.

“There’s been plenty of great players who have come over from Japan,’’ Cleveland Indians GM Mike Chernoff says, “and there’s been huge interest in those players over the years. But this one is unique because he can potentially go to any team, not just the big-money players. It’s an amazing story.’’

Teams already are concocting ways to land him, with the Mariners planning to have Hall of Famer Ken Griffey Jr. tag along with them to Japan to help recruit, the Yankees can lean on former slugger Hideki Matsui, and the Rangers hope that Yu Darvish can sing their praises about his experience in Texas.

Hey, you’ll do anything you can to land a guy has yielded a 2.52 ERA in 82 starts and three relief appearances in Japan, striking out 10.3 batters per nine innings, with an offensive slash line of .286/.358/.500.

“I would love to see him come over, it would be pretty incredible,’’ Chernoff says. “I know as a manager, Tito [Terry Francona] would love him.  I really can’t wait to see it.

“I just don’t want to see it in our division. Not unless he’s coming to us.’’

Get ready, the recruiting war is about to become a doozy.

By Bob Nightengale

This article was republished with permission from the original publisher, USA Today. Follow Bob Nightengale on Twitter and Facebook


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