By Zach Gewelb
The Mets have been rumored to be interested in one of, if not the most intriguing player expected to be available in free agency this winter.
Japanese phenom Shohei Ohtani, 23, has been compared to Babe Ruth because of his two-way skill set. He has the potential to be a top-of-the-rotation pitcher and a middle-of-the-order bat. Any team who signs him would be happy if he became just one of those things. But what if he could be both?
That’s the appeal of someone like Ohtani. Usually, the Mets would feign interest in a player like this — they’ve dipped into the Japanese market before — but have usually been priced out of signing Japanese stars. While they signed Kaz Matsui back in 2003, they’ve missed out on some of the bigger names to come to the U.S., including Hideki Matsui, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Hiroki Kuroda and others.
But a change in the collective bargaining agreement has brought a sense of parody to the race for Ohtani. Because he is under 25 years old, Ohtani can’t be treated like a regular free agent.
While any team interested in negotiating with the prized prospect would have to pay his Japanese team $20 million for the right to do so, he is subject to the same rules as other international players, meaning that teams can only use their international bonus money to make an offer. With a little more than $3.5 million at their disposal, the Texas Rangers have the most money to offer Ohtani, while the Yankees — currently viewed as the favorites to land the Japanese star — have approximately $3.25 million available, followed by the Twins at $3.245 million.
The Mets, meanwhile, have just $105,000 remaining in their bonus pool, which is significantly less than the aforementioned teams. So, why might Ohtani choose the Mets?
Well, it is clear that money is not Ohtani’s biggest priority. If it were, he would wait until he turned 25 before coming stateside, which would allow him to be a true free agent and not restricted to such a small bonus.
Reports have circulated that Ohtani could be worth a $200 million contract. But still, he’s choosing to make the jump to Major League Baseball now rather than wait for a big pay day. That keeps the Mets in the running.
And, as General Manager Sandy Alderson said, there is no reason not to look into signing the intriguing prospect.
“I think the only downside is creating a false set of expectations among fans that have to be tempered,” Alderson said before departing the General Manager Meetings in Florida last week. “This guy can go to any one of 30 teams. … I don’t know that anybody has ruled themselves out of the Ohtani sweepstakes at this point, so I certainly wouldn’t rule ourselves out at this point.”
With money not expected to be the biggest obstacle, look for Ohtani to sign with a team that will give him a chance to both hit and pitch. As a National League team, the Mets would give Ohtani a chance to hit for the Mets on the days he pitches. So it would come down to whether or not the Mets would allow him to play the field and gets extra at-bats on days he’s not on the mound.
It’s a risky proposition, but it’s one that would be worth the risk, given Ohtani’s star power.
Being in New York would also open the door for potential sponsorships. It would allow Ohtani to make some extra money early in has career, which is not something that every team — or city — could offer.
It will be interesting to follow the Ohtani sweepstakes this winter. No one is quite sure what’s on his wish list.
But one thing is for sure: the Mets will do everything they can to bring Ohtani to Queens. It’s too good an opportunity not to try to do so.
Reach reporter Zach Gewelb by e-mail at zgewe