Shohei Ohtani will unquestionably be the toughest rank for anyone all year just for the vast number of unknown variables, especially since we’re not even sure where’s going to play yet. In my October SP rankings, I didn’t include Ohtani because we weren’t even sure that he was coming over 100%. Now that the posting system issue is settled and he’s officially coming over, I’ve dropped him into the rankings at 31. I’ve made plenty of changes to the October rankings as I’m in full research mode and will have an update after the New Year, but here’s a look at those just above and below Ohtani:
- 25 – Jon Lester, CHC
- 26 – Jeff Samardzija, SFG
- 27 – Gerrit Cole, PIT
- 28 – Jake Arrieta, FA
- 29 – Garrett Richards, LAA
- 30 – Lance McCullers, HOU
- 31 – Shohei Ohtani, FA
- 32 – Jose Berrios, MIN
- 33 – Chase Anderson, MIL
- 34 – Zack Godley, ARI
- 35 – Rich Hill, LAD
- 36 – Alex Wood, LAD
- 37 – Michael Fulmer, DET
- 38 – Luis Castillo, CIN
- 39 – Jon Gray, COL
- 40 – Sonny Gray, NYY
He has narrowed his list and seems to be favoring the West Coast, which keeps my darkhorse pick, Seattle, in play. When discussing it on the podcast, I acknowledged that the Dodgers and Yankees were obvious favorites (this was pre-posting before he eliminated NYY), but officially picked Seattle as my landing spot (eager to see how this entry ages). With him coming over early and eschewing a free-for-all financially, it was clear that he favored aspects beyond strictly the contract. Seattle’s tremendous success with Asian-born players – not just Ichiro – makes them a strong candidate.
Mac Suzuki was their first in 1996 and though he never thrived in the majors, he did hang around until 2002. Kazuhiro Sasaki came over in 2000, excelled as a closer for three years and even won a Rookie of the Year. Ichiro came over a year later and of course dominated. The Angels brought Shigetoshi Hasegawa over in 1997 and then he finished with four years in Seattle (2002-05). Kenji Johjima had a solid four seasons (2006-09) before returning to Japan at age-34. Muneori Kawasaki and Hisashi Iwakuma came over in 2012 with Kawasaki returning to Japan this past season and Iwakuma re-signed with the M’s this winter. We’ll see if they are able to land Ohtani, but at least now you have a brief history of their pipeline from Japan.
For the purposes of this piece, I’m going to put the hitting potential to the side. There isn’t consensus on how to handle it and in many leagues you won’t even get his hitting stats, which I expect to be better than the best hitting pitchers if only because of volume, but not something you’re really going to miss (maybe a low-to-mid .700s OPS with some homers). On the mound, there are viable comps to Yu Darvish and it’s not just the lazy “oh they’re both Japanese League pitchers so let’s comp them”, but rather because he has a similar build (6’5, 215) and dazzling pitch repertoire. He’s coming over two years younger than Darvish and has more velocity which starts to conjure more of a Justin Verlander comp. ShoYu Verltani sounds pretty great.
He should bring at least two plus pitches right out the gate with his fastball and splitter while the slider has also gotten plus grades, but might “only” be more of a 50-55 grade pitch, same with his curveball. He doesn’t have a true changeup in his arsenal, but the splitter acts as one without a doubt. While I understand the need for distinction between the two – especially if you’re talking about a circle-change – I’m really just wanting him to have something to change speeds and fool guys looking for his fastball. The fall-off-the-table splitter does just that. Maybe he’ll learn a distinct change and just make life even harder for the opposition once he settles in the States.
An ankle injury limited him to just 25.3 innings last year, but he has peaked at 160.7 innings (2015) so I’d use that as a high end for his potential 2018 output and work from there. If the team that signs him gives him a real go at hitting that might also limit his workload on the mound, especially if the signing team institutes a de facto 6-man rotation. I don’t think it’d be a true 6-man to prevent throwing off the other five arms, but something with a swingman or two to keep Ohtani on schedule. There are also more off days this season, which should make the implementation easier.
I slotted him on the high end of my range because his stuff is so electric and we’ve seen 130-inning seasons rank in the top 30 each of the last few seasons, but he’s in the first large cluster of the pitching pool. There isn’t a ton of difference between pitchers 30 (McCullers) and 50 (Kyle Hendricks), and maybe even 60 (Dinelson Lamet). I don’t say that as a copout, I stand by Ohtani this high, but know that if there is someone you like more in the 40-50 range on this list, I wouldn’t vehemently be against you taking that guy over Ohtani.
For more on Ohtani, I highly recommend this piece by Mike Petriello that analyzes the scant Statcast data we have for him.