Let’s get this part of the Shohei Otani drama out of the way: All 30 Major League Baseball teams will presumably submit the paperwork indicating a willingness to pay the $20 million posting fee for the multitalented star. A failure to do so -- even for executives who believe they have no chance of landing Otani -- would be the general manager’s version of failing to run out a ground ball. No GM wants to explain to his fan base why he didn’t at least express formal interest in the player who will dominate baseball’s offseason.
Beyond that, the anticipated chase of Otani is shrouded in mystery, with evaluators trying to figure out what factors will make the difference when the would-be pitcher and slugger makes his decision about where he will play.
Could it be geography? Could it be market size? Could it be friendships? Could it be the recruiting talents of former Japanese stars, such as Ichiro Suzuki or Hideki Matsui? Could Otani's endorsement opportunities be pivotal? Could it be the agent’s relationship with specific teams? Could it be the designated hitter rule?
Could it be none of the above and really pivot around something that no team knows about?
Scouts have invested a lot of time trying to find clues to the formula for landing Otani, and yet, one evaluator said recently, “It’s incredible how many unknowns there are.”
That Otani will apparently forge ahead with plans to play in MLB in 2018 in spite of the fact that he stands to make more money by waiting two years has only increased the appreciation for the player. “It tells you that he’s serious about wanting to play against the best possible competition,” one executive said. “He’s putting his money where his mouth is.”
As far as we know, anyway; Otani has actually been extremely careful in talking about his plans, a reticence that has only increased the uncertainty for teams as they try to assess the situation.
In some respects, Otani’s circumstances are a lot like those for a five-star college basketball recruit: Teams will attend his games as much to be seen as they are to see him, to reinforce the perception of their interest. And, some of those interested in Otani wonder about what rule-bending financial arrangements might take place.
One evaluator estimated that, in a vacuum, Otani might be worth $200 million if he was a free agent up for auction. But because of the terms of the collective bargaining agreement executed by MLB and the players' association last fall, the most that Otani, 23, can receive is the money available under the international signing restrictions. The Associated Press reported the other day that the Texas Rangers could offer the most money to Otani at $3.535 million. The New York Yankees can offer $3.25 million. Offers from other teams would be in the same fiscal neighborhood, which is what a lot of middle relievers receive -- not superstar-level players, which is what executives expect Otani will be, whether he eventually pitches, hits or does both. His fastball has been clocked as high as 101 mph recently, and last year, he batted .322, with an OPS of 1.004. Otani played through an ankle problem and batted .341 this year.
So how do you make up for that $200 million in squandered value, one official wondered.
A theory floated is that the team that lands Otani could circumvent the financial limitations in place by assuring the player that they won’t tender him a contract after the first or second season, allowing Otani to become a free agent -- with a prenegotiated deal to follow with the team that cut him free. But sources indicate that Major League Baseball would view that as an obvious attempt to effectively break the rules and would come down hard on Otani’s MLB team. “Because there’s no reasonable logic to failing to tender a contract to a young star player other than to get around the rules,” said one official.
Otani’s situation will be highly scrutinized and commissioner Rob Manfred has made it known he wants the integrity of the current international-signing system to be honored.
“Otani is a great player,” Manfred said the other day. “We're always interested in having great players in Major League Baseball. From my perspective, I'm more concerned about having the right, durable system than whether a player comes this year or two years from now."
Some evaluators believe that whoever Otani picks to serve as his agent will have to play a crucial role, because that agent may have to arrange an understanding of how the player can recoup his value after 2019, when the rules would allow him to lock in a long-term contract. That kind of off-the-record deal-making is against baseball’s rules, but as one official said, “Let’s not be naïve. ... You’ll need an agent with the relationships to get that done.”
But no one seems to know Otani well enough to get a sense of what he’ll ask for or expect. Would he want to play in New York, with Masahiro Tanaka? Would he want to play in L.A.? San Francisco? Texas, where his friend Yu Darvish fared well? Does he like the apparent flexibility in how the Dodgers arrange their roster? Would he like a chance to serve as a DH? Would he prefer a pitcher’s park? Would he want to be the latest in the Red Sox tradition of great left-handed hitters and effectively step into the role left behind by David Ortiz? Does he harbor a secret desire to own Milwaukee and have season tickets to the Packers?
Within the industry, there is an expectation that the usual suspects among the big markets will have an advantage -- the Dodgers, Yankees, Cubs, Red Sox, Giants, etc. “We can all pick out the five or six teams that probably have a legitimate shot,” one official said.
But no one seems to know for sure, and more and more, it feels like the team Otani eventually signs with will feel like they won baseball's Powerball that will pay annually for years to come.
Sunday Night Baseball
After the Washington Nationals clinched the National League East last week, the players initially celebrated in their clubhouse, and then they trekked out to the field to share the moment with the Washington fans. The first player out of the Nats’ dugout was Stephen Strasburg, who pulled off his cap and waved it for the patrons. He has always been quiet and private, and maybe five or six years ago, he would’ve let others step out ahead of him. But now he is signed to a long-term contract with the Nationals, he is 29 years old, he has become a father, and this was a moment when the change in him was apparent. Nationals folks also point to a moment recently when infielder Adrian Sanchez made a great play, and Strasburg pumped a fist excitedly -- the sort of outburst you may not have seen earlier in his career.
Strasburg, who starts against the Los Angeles Dodgers on Sunday Night Baseball (ESPN, 8 p.m. ET), has changed on the mound this year, as well. When he arrived in spring training, general manager Mike Rizzo recalled, Strasburg talked about working full-time out of a set position, rather than a windup. Sure, it was possible that he might lose a bit of velocity by eschewing the windup, but through this full-time alteration, Strasburg thought he could be more consistent with his delivery, with his release point and with each of his pitches.
“I think he’s as good as he’s ever been,” Rizzo said. “You could make an argument that he’s better than he’s ever been.”
This is the sixth season in which Strasburg has at least 23 starts, and among those years, Strasburg’s 2017 ERA of 2.64 is his lowest; his WHIP of 1.03 is his best; his opponents’ OPS of .597 is his second-best. Each of his three primary pitches -- fastball, curveball and changeup -- rank in the top 10 in value among all starting pitchers, and Rizzo feels like Strasburg’s slider has helped, as well.
“He’s got four plus pitches,” Rizzo said.
And that velocity sacrifice? Well, Strasburg has been so efficient with his revamped delivery that his average fastball velocity has climbed this season to 95.7 mph, his best since 2012.
Hyun-Jin Ryu takes the mound on Sunday: The Dodgers lefty is still under consideration, theoretically, to be part of the team’s postseason rotation. But strong outings from Yu Darvish, Alex Wood and Rich Hill in recent days may have effectively cemented the No. 2, 3 and 4 spots behind Clayton Kershaw. In eight starts since July 24, Ryu has a 2.60 ERA, with just four homers allowed in 45 innings. Other teams checked on Ryu’s availability before the trade deadline, but the Dodgers liked how he is throwing and the depth he provides.
Dodgers' lineup decisions: Outside of Clayton Kershaw, the Dodgers’ depth is its greatest weapon over the course of the long season. But because of the array of choices, the team’s front office now has some decisions to sort through before the start of the postseason, most notably in the team’s lineup against right-handed pitchers.
Around the league
David Price's experience and recent history should give him a chance to make a major impact for the Red Sox in the final days of the regular season and into the postseason. Opposing left-handed batters have a .204 average against Price this season, with just one homer in 54 at-bats. And if the Red Sox play the Astros in the first round, Boston manager John Farrell could deploy Price against the left-handed hitting Josh Reddick in a big spot and force Astros manager A.J. Hinch into a decision.
But it’s surprising that Price hasn’t put the Dennis Eckersley episode behind him by finally talking to reporters about the incident. Look, Price will have the opportunity to opt out of his contract after the 2018 season, but that almost certainly cannot happen without Price sacrificing many tens of millions of dollars. He is 32 years old, he’s pitching with a tear in his elbow, and no matter how well he throws the rest of this season or next season, Price could never replicate the record-setting contract he got from Boston because of concerns about his age and health.
For Price, the next best action might be to do everything he can to make the next five years of his life as positive and enjoyable as possible, on and off the field. He can help that by getting past the confrontation with Eckersley, who spoke out loud about the exchange for the first time the other day with Rob Bradford and detailed how humiliated he felt.
Willson Contreras plays with remarkable energy and passion, and he gave the Cubs a jolt when he returned to the lineup -- right up to the moment when he accidentally bounced his face mask off umpire Jordan Baker, which earned him a two-game suspension (he is appealing that suspension). One evaluator predicted that pitchers will shy away from throwing at Contreras during his career, because he plays with such an edge and because of how strong he is.
With three hits Saturday, Carlos Beltran has 2,721 career hits, tying Lou Gehrig for 62nd place all time.
Baseball Tonight Podcast
Friday: Diamondbacks pitcher Robbie Ray; Karl Ravech and Paul Hembekides about Aaron Judge as an MVP candidate; and Boog Sciambi on the NL MVP race and whether the window for success has closed for the San Francisco Giants.
Thursday: On the morning after the Indians break the AL record for victories, Bud Shaw of the Cleveland Plain Dealer on the team, the city’s response and LeBron’s message; Keith Law on the Dodgers and Walker Buehler and Rhys Hoskins; and Jessica Mendoza on L.A.
Wednesday: Royals GM Dayton Moore on what’s ahead for Kansas City; Tim Kurkjian on Otani’s possible impact in the big leagues; John Fisher and Gone Fishin’.
Tuesday: Andy McCullough of the L.A. Times on the struggling Dodgers; Bob Nightengale of USA Today on Jose Altuve’s MVP chances; Jerry Crasnick on the Diamondbacks; and Sarah Langs plays The Numbers Game.
And today will be better than yesterday.