It really could be us.
Shohei Ohtani will select the team he’ll sign with in the next couple weeks, and his shortlist includes the Mariners. He’ll sign having been short-changed on his earning potential more than arguably any player since free agency began. Of the few remaining teams in contention, a couple can offer a better guarantee of immediate contention and a few certainly cannot, but no franchise needs Ohtani more than the Seattle Mariners. Seattle signing Shohei remains a long-shot, no matter what anyone says, but with him officially eschewing the east coast, the wispy dream we’ve been holding onto here has grown into a healthy flame. Signing Ohtani would be an enormous coup for Jerry Dipoto and ensure an increased spotlight on the Mariners in 2018 regardless of their record, but it’s difficult to overstate how significant Ohtani’s impact could actually be.
Ohtani is 23 years old, with results that match his elite tools both on the mound and at the plate. ZiPS projects him to be a 3.3 WAR pitcher (139.1 IP) and a 2.2 WAR hitter (305 ABs as a DH). Beyond that elite immediate production, he is, by the design of MLB’s rules, the only major league level free agent that is just 23 years of age. Teams don’t trade 23 year olds with star potential for nothing. Only the most refined draft picks are able to make an instant impact without time in the minors, and selecting such a player means utilizing a precious lone chance to select a number of top talents. Remove the mystery and curiosity of his two-way playing potential - players of Ohtani’s caliber have the ability to alter “windows” and tip divisional balances both instantly and for a decade.
If we play a bit of Calvinball and take the ZiPS projections for Ohtani and plug them into the Mariners current 2018 Depth Charts projections, the impact is massive. With next to no payroll impact, the Mariners shoot from an 82-80 team past the Angels, Twins, and Blue Jays to about an 86-76 team. The M’s much-maligned starting rotation would climb four spots to 13th by substituting Ariel Miranda. No player on the market - not Yu Darvish, not J.D. Martinez, not Carlos Santana - project to influence their next team that positively in 2018. Even if the $20 million posting fee makes ownership bearish on pushing the payroll significantly, the Mariners would still be in the same position to spend on another starting pitcher and/or outfielder as they are right now.
Looking beyond 2018, however, the impact only grows. Certainly his signing would ensure Jerry Dipoto an extension as General Manager, which could be a boon or a danger depending on your perspective. On the roster, however, the options begin to open up. After 2018 Nelson Cruz will be a free agent, creating a major hole of productivity but also opening DH fully and creating $14 million with which to work. Ohtani will be 24 years old. After 2019, Félix Hernández will cease to be paid $27.8 million. Ohtani will be 25 years old. At no point will Ohtani not fit in the starting rotation, nor will he be too old to improve or adjust. His bat will similarly fit in Seattle, and even if he continues to require a more complex rest schedule, it is hard not to imagine his value making the creativity worthwhile. Without Ohtani, it is possible to see competitive teams in Seattle for the next few seasons, but with him emerges a framework capable of challenging for division titles.
After Ohtani reaches the age by which he would have been eligible to receive a standard free agent contract, perhaps the MLB powers that be will not smite the Mariners for offering Ohtani a contract extension, but even in the impossible event that Ohtani remained in arbitration until free agency, he would reach free agency at age 29, prior to the 2024 season, the same year that Robinson Canó will reach free agency. Instead of careening towards a likely rebuild as their current core ages, the Mariners could design a team centered around strong players in the mid-to-late twenties: Ohtani, Mike Zunino, Mitch Haniger, James Paxton, Jean Segura, and hey, maybe even Kyle Lewis or Evan White in a year or two, supplemented by veterans like Kyle Seager, Mike Leake, and, if Father Time is incredibly generous, a still productive Robi.
It’s dangerous to treat one player’s acquisition, especially a pitcher, as a panacea. Ohtani throws harder than most people on the planet, which means significant strain is being put on his arm and body. Ohtani is 6’3-6’4 and resembles Justin Verlander more than Tim Lincecum, but that description could just as easily describe Mark Prior. Except Mark Prior couldn’t also be an above-average power hitting lefty if his arm blew out. Even if he is a complete flop, the sunk cost for the Mariners is effectively only the posting fee. Ohtani is a sensation for a reason, though, and the Mariners have a chance to be his preferred choice. It may be putting the cart before the horse to dream of how Ohtani could save the future of the Mariners, but in this case the horse is a pegasus and the cart hasn’t been to the market in 16 years.
Write a letter, cross your fingers, do a snow dance - whatever action or ritual brings you fortune is what Mariners fans need to this next week. This isn’t the only way, but it’s the best way the Mariners can compete now and in the near future. This is it.