The Seattle Mariners should desperately want to sign Shohei Ohtani. I feel little need to belabor that point. The Mariners just watched their closest shot at an AL West title in decades slip through their fingertips, and saw the Texas Rangers usurp their incremental rebuild with a financially-infused re-kit to slay the Houston Astros and claim the AL Pennant and the World Series trophy. Adding the best hitter in Major League Baseball in 2023, ahead of his age-29 season, would do more to shore up Seattle’s lineup than any other single transaction for 2024 and beyond. Even as a DH-only for the 2024 season, Ohtani’s durability, dominance, and all-around offensive might make him a no-brainer for Seattle to covet. Beyond the numbers, Ohtani is the sport’s biggest star, a transcendent player whose fame eclipses all others in MLB and whose popularity would instantly buoy Seattle’s standing in the sport among other clubs, players, and agents, to say nothing of the financial rewards the organization would stand to recoup for employing a player who has the cultural footprint not seen by an individual MLB player since the stars of the 2000s.
The far greater issue is whether Ohtani would choose to sign with the Mariners. Unlike the winter of 2017-18, when the 23-year-old first chose Anaheim over what had seemed a favored Seattle club, MLB’s rules no longer constrain his earnings. That’s terrible news for M’s fans, as for years Seattle’s ownership group has placed highly at PAX West in several cosplay competitions for their impersonations of impoverished plebeians. Every team will want Ohtani, though some will realistically not be involved. Several clubs can offer more money to the Unicorn, though as we’ve seen from Manny Machado to Robinson Canó to Corey Seager, it’s not always the richest team but the team willing to part with the most riches, and provide the best fit.
Providing a fit is Seattle’s narrow, fleeting pathway to securing Shohei, if they even have the courage to try. What can they offer that he could not find with the Dodgers, Giants, Mets, Yankees, Red Sox, Cubs, etc.? A unique legacy, a roster suited to thrive with the addition of his presence, a ballpark perfectly reasonable for his continued hitting success and second-to-none for a subsequent return to pitching, one of the least aggressive media environments in the sport, and in all likelihood, a willingness to craft a contract laden with player choice and agency. I do not expect that to be enough to outweigh the highest bidder, a larger market, a more robust track record of winning, and an ownership group that has demonstrated a willingness to invest in success over pinching pennies. But these are what Seattle has left to cling to.
Does Ohtani, a player who famously planned his career out year-by-year when he was a teenager, still have a yearning to break new barriers, overcome new thresholds? Just as the scrawniest, most bedraggled puppy is the perfect pet for certain folks, Seattle’s status as the lone active club to never appear in a World Series, and the third-oldest of just five without a title. When Ichiro came to Seattle, he immediately won the MVP and led the greatest regular season team in the history of the sport to 116 wins. But even Ichiro, the lone Japanese position player whose MLB numbers stand above Ohtani’s, could not bring a World Series to the Pacific Northwest. To that end, Seattle’s present roster is among the best in the league in terms of both young talent and long-term cost-control of said talent. If Ohtani wants consistency, it’s hard to do better than stepping into a lineup behind Julio Rodríguez, who will be under contract with Seattle for Ohtani’s entire remaining career. Ohtani’s mighty bat would play in any ballpark, anywhere, but lefty sluggers in particular can thrive in T-Mobile Park far more easily than their righty counterparts due to the stadium’s relatively forgiving right field fence.
It is the quality of Seattle’s existing roster that makes Ohtani’s acquisition both tantalizingly appropriate and even remotely feasible. The Mariners roster is everything Ohtani lacked astride him in Anaheim: young, flush with quality pitching, and, frankly, competent in his absence. Where the Mariners of 2014-2018 resembled Anaheim’s stars and scrubs model, there is now a breadth of reasonable depth and youth at every position on Seattle’s roster, well-correlated with health and consistency as is the genuine value of Jerry Dipoto’s 54% philosophy. In Seattle, even as merely a hitter in 2024, Ohtani would elevate everything that is lacking, while Ohtani could finally feel the pressure lightened even slightly off his shoulders.
In that sense, of course, only so much can be done. Ohtani is the biggest domestic and international star in the sport. If a non-fan is to know one active player, it is Shohei. Perhaps it is his desire to be front and center for megastardom, as his proximity to Los Angeles assisted him in during the first epoch of his career. However, Ohtani hasn’t displayed a yearning for the limelight off the field, performing in ad campaigns and charitable work but little more. Seattle’s Yukon-like reputation has faded in the years of the tech boom, but the streets of Wallingford and Beacon Hill are less likely to be swarming with scoop-hungry reporters than Manhattan or even Los Angeles. For a player who is highly prioritizing privacy in his free agency and took out a separate space to avoid media coverage during the GM meetings earlier this winter, Seattle not only offers natural protection but an organization that promotes a clubhouse environment prioritizing player preference in terms of media obligations.
In the end, of course, it’s likely to come down to the money. Julio’s deal could max out at $470 million over 17 years, however given the immense number of seasons and arcane nature of the options, it’s more straightforward to note how Seattle has never given a free agent the type of money Ohtani will command. Whether that is measured by AAV or total dollars, Robinson Canó’s $240 million over 10 years will be blown out of the water, and may even be doubled by Ohtani’s next employer. In here, then, is the slim hope that Seattle’s history with creative negotiations and contracts could afford them an edge. From Rodríguez to Yusei Kikuchi and even Robbie Ray, Seattle has shown a willingness to make deals that range from more rote player options to complex deals that highly reward the player’s performance in guaranteed money and player option triggers. For Ohtani, who could possibly earn another massive payday in a couple seasons if he can demonstrate a healthy return to two-way play, Seattle could be a one or two year stop, leaving both sides happy as the extraordinary young man reenters the fray.
I’ve run out of straws to grasp at, so I’ll say it again: Ohtani’s signing with the Mariners would alter the trajectory of the franchise more positively than any free agent since Ichiro, and perhaps ever. It’s also exceptionally unlikely the current ownership group has the interest in committing to such a move. But there is still a glimmer of hope, just as there was in the winter of 2017.