The 2017 season has not yet been laid to rest, but the Mariners’ room for error is slimmer than a vegetarian crocodile. The Mariners seem intent on running it back the next year or two with the same core, however, and avoiding a pitching staff manned by under-cooked rookies or lightly seasoned journeymen will be paramount if the team desires a different result. In pursuit of that goal, Jerry Dipoto returned to his scouting director roots, and took a trip across the Pacific Ocean this past weekend to appraise several potential offseason targets. Yes, there is some brewing interest in Shohei Otani (or Ohtani, as he apparently prefers it to be spelled), but there are a great many factors that would have to fall into place for that to even be a possibility. At some point this week, Dipoto will likely be asked in detail about his trip, but until then, we have done our research so that everyone’s appetite for international signings are properly whetted. But first of all...
Does Jerry know what he’s doing in Japan?
The shortest answer is, of course, a hopeful shrug. Dipoto worked as a scout for the Rockies and Red Sox before becoming the Director of Scouting and Player Personnel in Arizona, but whether that led to much international scouting is uncertain. What we DO know is that Dipoto was notably proactive about leading scouting excursions himself while in charge of the Los Angeles Angels. Dipoto himself traveled to scout Masahiro Tanaka and Yu Darvish, both of whom have translated dominance in Japan into MLB success. Jerry was also personally active in scouting RHP reliever Kyuji Fujikawa and LHP starter Tsuyoshi Wada for the Angels. Anecdotally, both Ryan Divish of the Seattle Times and numerous reporters from Dipoto’s time in Los Angeles describe Dipoto as having an affinity for traveling to Japan to scout. It’s also worth noting that for all that affinity, a Dipoto-run front office has not signed a single player directly from Japan, spanning both 2016-17 and 2012-15 in Los Angeles.
So far there has been a lot of smoke and no fire, but at least this is not his first journey of this sort. With that in mind...
Who has Dipoto seen so far?
We’ll start with what we have definite information on. Dipoto and the scouting contingent he’s traveled with have been to several games, and have had their eyes on pitching.
According to our sources, on Saturday, Dipoto and co. were at the game between the Fukuoaka SoftBank Hawks and the Chiba Lotte Marines to see the Marines starting pitcher, Hideaki Wakui. The 31-year-old Wakui is in his 13th season in Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) and has stated a desire to come to the MLB in 2018 after a stellar career in Japan. Hideaki has a 3.43 career ERA in 2047.0 IP with 288 starts in Japan. At age 23, Hideaki won the 2009 Sawamura Award for Japan’s top pitcher with a 2.30 ERA and 199 Ks in 211.2 IP. He was flanked by some familiar names in that victory.
That was eight years ago, of course, and what Hideaki could bring to the Mariners is uncertain. Whether fair or not to their pitching styles, targeting an early-30s starting pitcher from Japan will likely make Mariners fans think of Hisashi Iwakuma. Iwakuma was signed to minimal fanfare in 2012 at the age of 31 and has been the fourth-most productive Mariners pitcher of the 21st century. Hideaki has seen his production dip from elite to above-average in recent years, however, whereas Kuma was in the peak of his success. Hideaki’s history of health is appealing to the Mariners, but his lower strikeout numbers over recent years are worrying in this homer-happy era. Hideaki has had a mixed repertoire of pitches in the low to mid-80s so far in his career, along with a fastball in the high 80s and low 90s.
The other player Dipoto was known to be tracking was a reliever by the name of Yoshihisa Hirano. The 33-year-old Yoshihisa began his career with the Orix Buffaloes as a starter but moved to the bullpen in 2010 and saw his stuff take off. He features a low 90s four-seam with a low-80s forkball and slider. He’s worked as a closer for Orix over the past eight seasons, and in half of them has had an ERA <2.00. Likely, Yoshihisa would be a middle reliever in the MLB, but the Mariners need those too. I wish I could find useful video of him, but a different Yoshihisa Hirano made the soundtrack to the animes Death Note and Hunter x Hunter so digging through those videos proved fruitless.
Blah Blah Blah, WHAT ABOUT OHTANI???
If you skipped the middle section to get here I don’t blame you. For anyone new to this hype train, Shohei Ohtani was the MVP of Japan’s Pacific League (one of the two leagues that make up the NPB, a la MLB’s AL and NL) in 2016 at the ripe old age of 22. He set the record for hardest pitch officially recorded by a Japanese pitcher at 165 km/hr (102.5 mph), is the most impressive starting pitching prospect in Japan’s history, and also happens to be one of the league’s best hitters, too, DH-ing on his days off. If you haven’t seen film of Ohtani yet, this should give a decent sense of his potential:
Once more, with wood and feeling:
Shohei Ohtani did unspeakable things to a baseball. It was his first HR after coming back from leg injury https://t.co/gmxdIsLyBi— Kazuto Yamazaki (@Kazuto_Yamazaki) July 26, 2017
Understandably, Ohtani’s start a week and a half ago drew quite a crowd.
Teams, according to scout in attendance, that requested seats to see Otani: AZ, BAL, BOS, CHC, CIN, CLE, LAD, NYY, PIT, SEA, TEX, TOR, WAS.— Ken Rosenthal (@Ken_Rosenthal) August 31, 2017
According to Ryan Divish, this weekend’s trip included Dipoto personally checking out the world’s most exciting prospect. The Mariners are serious about Ohtani, but it’s anyone’s guess as to what their chances are. For it to even matter, he has to decide he’s going to come to the U.S. this offseason. If he’s able to leave his club, the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters, he’ll do so as an international amateur, not an international free agent.
If you’re a neophyte to international signings, the major distinction is that at age 25, players born outside of the United States are considered free agents in much the same way free agents exist normally. Prior to age 25, however, foreign players are subject to the international bonus pools for their signing bonuses, which are between $4.75-5.75 million per team. Teams can trade for additional space as well, up to 75% of their initial cap, as the Mariners did recently in acquiring $750,000 of space as part of the trade for Mike Leake. If you’d like further explanation of the process, Ben Badler of Baseball America has an excellent summary here, but the crux of the issue is simple: Ohtani would be forgoing around $200 million just to make the leap to the U.S. two years earlier. Knowing that, the most recent statement he made was that he wanted to play in the U.S. in 2018.
If that’s really the case, the Mariners have done a decent job of setting themselves up as a solid landing spot. Seattle retains somewhere between $1.7-2.5 million in international pool space, which means they’re capable of making one of the richest offers Ohtani could receive this offseason. Traditional big spenders like the Yankees and Red Sox have already spent the majority of their pools on players from Latin America, while the Dodgers, Cubs, and several other teams are all being penalized for exceeding their limits last year and are not allowed to sign any one player for over $300,000. A guy who isn’t willing to wait two years to multiply his guaranteed money 100 times over is probably not going to be swayed dramatically by money, but it’s a useful edge nonetheless. Perhaps Seattle’s strong history with Japanese players give them another advantage? It’s all thoroughly speculative once we get to this point, but the fact that Dipoto seems to be making Ohtani a priority is encouraging.
Now it’s about turning years and years of smoke into a blaze.