The Ohtani Algorithm

Japanese sensation Shohei Ohtani will have no shortage of suitors. (via Michelle Jay)

Free agency is predictable. Nearly every free agent has one motivating factor driving his decision: grabbing the best contract possible. To predict where a player will sign all you have to do is draw a line to the team that will pay the most. Guessing the correct team is a little more complicated, but the player’s motive is simple.

Shohei Ohtani is writing his own rules. For the uninitiated, the 23-year-old sensation is the best pitcher in Japan who also happens to be the best hitter in Japan. No one alive has ever seen a player like him in the majors. Now, he’s ready to be posted and come to a ballpark near you. Needless to say, the ensuing frenzy to pursue him will be unlike anything we’ve seen before.

However, Ohtani’s two-way excellence isn’t what makes him baseball’s most compelling story this winter. His free-agency decision will have little to do with money at all. He’s under the age of 25 and therefore subject to baseball’s international bonus system. This will drastically reduce his earning potential. If he were a true free agent he would probably sign for more $200 million. Now he’ll sign for a bonus less than $4 million and a major league minimum salary until he reaches arbitration.

In other words, money isn’t the driving factor for Ohtani. Some consider it foolish, others think it admirable. Regardless of the reason, the normal rules of free agency do not apply. So what are the Ohtani rules? Only he knows for sure.

While we can’t know his rules or criteria for choosing a team, I wanted to take a crack at predicting his team of choice anyway. So I designed an algorithm to predict the likelihood of each major league team signing Ohtani. It analyzes 11 possible factors, sorted into six categories, that may influence his free-agency decision. Each of those factors was weighted by estimating how important they may be for his choice. The result is a total score out of 100 for each team. The higher the score, the more likely the team is to sign him. Simple, right?

Of course, there’s a lot of guesswork with this algorithm. We don’t know if any of these factors actually weigh on his mind at all. Maybe there’s some other factor that we’ll never know. Trying to get inside the mind of a 23-year-old is reckless, if not impossible. But that’s what makes this whole process fun! Let’s make a guess, and after he signs we’ll see what was right, what was wrong, and what was just idiotic in hindsight. Below, I’ll break this down by each of the six categories I chose. If you’d like to look at everything altogether, you can view the spreadsheet in its entirety here.

Category 1: Team Interest

The first prerequisite for any free agent is having teams interested in his services; this is one normal free-agency rule from which Ohtani is not exempt. One might think all 30 teams would want a player called “The Japanese Babe Ruth,” and perhaps every team will offer the $20 million posting fee (only the signing team has to pay it), but in reality only a handful of them will enter the bidding in earnest. As a result, the Team Interest category is worth 35 points of the total 100.

Ninety percent of the Team Interest category is based on whether the team has scouted Ohtani. Teams whose general manager watched him in person receive 10 points in the “Scouted Ohtani” subcategory and teams that sent a scout get five points. If there is no known report of a given team scouting Ohtani, it receives no points.

The other 10 percent of the category is based on a team’s history of signing big-name international free agents. Some teams are more willing to take risks on international players.

Major International Free Agents Signed in the Last Five Years
Japan South Korea Cuba
Kenta Maeda (LAD) Jung Ho Kang (Pit) Jose Abreu (CWS)
Masahiro Tanaka (NYY) Hyun Soo Kim (Bal) Rusney Castillo (Bos)
Dae ho Lee (Sea) Odrisamer Despaigne (SDP)
Seung-hwan Oh (StL) Alex Guerrero (LAD)
Byung Ho Park (Min) Yuli Gurriel (Hou)
Hyun-jin Ryu (LAD) Yoan Moncada (Bos)
Hector Oliveira (LAD)
Yasiel Puig (LAD)

If a team hasn’t signed any in recent history it gets zero points. Teams that signed one or two players get five points. The Dodgers, who’ve signed five of them, get 10 points. This includes any player signed to a large major league contract from Japan, South Korea or Cuba in the last five years. The one exception is Yoan Moncada, who signed a minor league contract but for $31.5 million. It would be remiss to not include him as a big money international signing.

Team Interest
Team Scouted? History Score Team Scouted? History Score
ARI Yes 1 17.50 MIL Unknown 0  0.00
ATL Unknown 0  0.00 MIN Unknown 1  1.75
BAL Yes 1 17.50 NYM Unknown 0  0.00
BOS Yes 2 19.25 NYY Yes GM 1 33.25
CHC Yes 0 15.75 OAK Unknown 0  0.00
CWS Unknown 1  1.75 PHI Unknown 0  0.00
CIN Yes 0 15.75 PIT Yes 1 17.50
CLE Yes 0 15.75 SDP Yes GM 1 33.25
COL Unknown 0  0.00 SFG Yes GM 0 31.50
DET Unknown 0  0.00 SEA Yes GM 1 33.25
HOU Unknown 1  1.75 STL Unknown 1  1.75
KCR Unknown 0  0.00 TBR Unknown 0  0.00
LAA Unknown 0  0.00 TEX Yes GM 0 31.50
LAD Yes GM 5 35.00 TOR Yes 0 15.75
MIA Unknown 0  0.00 WSN Yes 0 15.75
– History = History with International Players (signed since 2013)
– Category Score is Out of 35.

The Dodgers are the only team to earn all 35 points in the Team Interest category. There appears to be a correlation between teams that sent their GM to scout Ohtani and teams that have signed international free agents before. As a result, the Yankees, the Padres and the Mariners joined the Dodgers near the top of the leaderboard, followed closely by the Rangers and the Giants.

Category 2: Playing Time

What good is a two-way player if he can’t play two ways? Assuming Ohtani wants to be on the mound and in the batter’s box as much as possible, playing time should be a significant factor. Subsequently, the Playing Time category is worth 25 percent of the total score.

Every team can make room for an ace on the pitching staff, but not every team has an open designated hitter spot. For this reason, the “Plate Appearances Opportunities” subcategory is worth 90 percent of the Playing Time category. All National League teams were tied for 24th because they have no DH during intraleague games. Using RosterResource.com, the American League teams were ranked 1-15 based on how entrenched their DH is for the upcoming season. The top five neediest teams at DH were granted 10 points, teams ranked 6-10 earned six points, the remaining five AL teams got two points and all NL teams received none at all.

The last 10 percent of the Team Interest category was devoted to pitching. Again using Roster Resource, each pitcher on a given team that was ranked in the top 150 overall in 2017 and is under contract for 2018 is considered to have a rotation spot for next year. Teams that have five such pitchers and don’t need any this offseason get zero points. Teams that need one or two pitchers get the full 10 points. Teams that need three or more starters get only six points, because while there is great need for a player of Ohtani’s skill, a team with such an incomplete rotation is usually rebuilding.

Playing Time
Team PA Opp. Rank SPs Needed Score Team PA Opp. Rank SPs Needed Score
ARI 24 0  0.0 MIL 24 2  2.5
ATL 24 2  2.5 MIN  5 2 25.0
BAL 14 3  6.5 NYM 24 2  2.5
BOS  6 1 16.0 NYY  4 1 25.0
CHC 24 1  2.5 OAK  9 1 16.0
CWS  1 4 24.5 PHI 24 2  2.5
CIN 24 4  2.0 PIT 24 0  0.0
CLE  2 0 22.5 SDP 24 2  2.5
COL 24 1  2.5 SFG 24 0  0.0
DET 15 3  6.5 SEA 13 1  7.0
HOU 10 0 13.5 STL 24 1  2.5
KCR  3 1 25.0 TBR  8 1 16.0
LAA 11 0  4.5 TEX  7 3 15.5
LAD 24 0  0.0 TOR 12 2  7.0
MIA 24 3  2.0 WSN 24 1  2.5
– PA Opp. Rank = Plate Appearance Opportunites Rank
– Category Score is Out of 25.

The Royals, the Twins and the Yankees earned all 25 points in this subcategory for having relatively open DH spots and holes in the rotation, with Cleveland and the White Sox close behind. These five teams have the most two-way playing time to offer Ohtani by a substantial margin.

Category 3: Money

Is money at least a partial factor for Ohtani? It stands to reason that he’ll want to get paid. If so, each team’s international bonus money and ability to sign him to an extension would affect his decision. The Money category is therefore worth 20 points out of the overall score.

The International Bonus Rules outlined in the collective bargaining agreement determine how much money each team can spend in a given offseason. Some teams have acquired more through trades, others have spent or traded nearly all of their bonus pool. In fact, only six teams can pay him even $1 million!

The Rangers, Twins and Yankees have more than $3 million to spend, giving them the full 10 points of this subcategory, which is worth 80 percent of the Money category. The Pirates receive eight points for having more than $2 million to offer. The Mariners and Marlins get six points each because they can offer more than $1 million. Teams with at least $0.5 million get two points and all others are granted no points.

Each team’s 2017 payroll is a 20 percent factor for the Money category. This is because he may want to sign a large contract extension, as many young stars do in their pre-arb or arbitration years. Teams with higher payrolls presumably will have a higher capacity to offer more money in the future. Teams north of $200 million get 10 points, $180 million gets nine points, $160 million gets eight points, and so on.

Money
Team Int’l Bonus $ High 2017 Payroll Score Team Int’l Bonus $ High 2017 Payroll Score
ARI 0.731  93  4.4 MIL 0.765  63  4.0
ATL 0.300 112  1.6 MIN 3.245 108 17.6
BAL 0.660 164  6.4 NYM 0.105 155  2.4
BOS 0.462 200  3.6 NYY 3.250 202 20.0
CHC 0.300 172  3.2 OAK 0.300  82  1.2
CWS 0.010  99  1.2 PHI 0.900 111  4.8
CIN 0.300  94  1.2 PIT 2.267 101 14.4
CLE 0.010 125  2.0 SDP 0.300  72  0.8
COL 0.300 131  2.0 SFG 0.300 172  3.2
DET 0.160 200  3.6 SEA 1.571 154 12.0
HOU 0.300 124  2.0 STL 0.300 152  2.4
KCR 0.300 141  2.4 TBR 0.441  70  0.8
LAA 0.150 160  2.4 TEX 3.535 176 19.2
LAD 0.300 242  4.0 TOR 0.050 178  3.2
MIA 1.740 112 11.2 WSN 0.300 168  3.2
– Dollars for Int’l bonus and high payroll columns are in millions of dollars.
– Category Score is Out of 20.

Naturally, the Yankees, Rangers and Twins score big in this category. Notably, big market teams like the Dodgers and Red Sox don’t fare well because of a lack of international bonus money available. This could make it difficult for them to remain in the bidding.

Category 4: Team Success

If you were a young phenom and had your pick of pretty much any team, wouldn’t you want to play for a winner? Assuming Ohtani thinks along those lines, he will be more likely to choose a team that can win the World Series quickly. This category has only one factor and counts for 10 points out of the total score.

Using OddsShark to determine World Series probability, each team was graded on its likelihood of success in 2018. Teams with 10:1 odds or better earned 10 points. Teams with 30:1 odds or better got six points. Any team with at least 50:1 odds received two points and all other teams got no points.

Team Success
Team 2018 WS Odds Score Team 2018 WS Odds Score
ARI  20  6 MIL 30  6
ATL  50  2 MIN 80  0
BAL  60  0 NYM 20  6
BOS  10 10 NYY  8 10
CHC  10 10 OAK 80  0
CWS  50  2 PHI 80  0
CIN  80  0 PIT 80  0
CLE   6 10 SDP 80  0
COL  40  2 SFG 50  2
DET 300  0 SEA 30  6
HOU   6 10 STL 20  6
KCR  80  0 TBR 30  6
LAA  60  0 TEX 60  0
LAD   5 10 TOR 30  6
MIA  80  0 WSN  7 10
– 2018 World Series Odds courtesy of OddsShark.
– Category Score is Out of 10.

Category 5: Cultural Comfort

It’s not easy traveling to a new country, especially at a young age. Ohtani may desire an easy transition to a team with Japanese players on its current roster or in its history. He may also want as short a plane ride as possible for his friends and family. Five points of the total score are devoted to Cultural Comfort.

Half of this category regards each team’s history with Japanese players. The “History” subcategory adds up current players on the roster from Japan as well as how many great Japanese players have ever played for the team. Perhaps Ohtani grew up a Mariners fan because of Ichiro Suzuki or a Yankees fan because of Hideki Matsui. Any team with two or more current or historical players gets 10 points, one player gets a team five points, and no players of course means no points.

It’s worth noting that three Japanese players are free agents this offseason: Yu Darvish, Ichiro Suzuki and Hisashi Iwakuma. If one of them signs before Ohtani it could impact his decision greatly. (Or maybe not at all!) Here’s the list of players recognized in this subcategory:

Great Japanese MLB Players
Great Japanese MLB Players Active Players Free Agents
Ichiro Suzuki Kenta Maeda Yu Darvish
Hideki Matsui Masahiro Tanaka Ichiro Suzuki
Hideo Nomo (Only Dodgers)* Junichi Tazawa Hisashi Iwakuma
Yu Darvish
Hiroki Kuroda
Koji Uehara
* Hideo Nomo pitched for several teams outside of Los Angeles, but for no more than one season. He’s best remembered as a Dodger, so only the Dodgers get the credit for having him.

The other half of the Cultural Comfort category is distance from Japan. West coast teams received 10 points, Middle America earned five points, and eastern teams got none. This represents the other 50 percent of the Cultural Comfort category.

Cultural Comfort
Team History Dist. (miles) Score Team History Dist. (miles) Score
ARI 0 5,833 1.25 MIL 0 6,247 1.25
ATL 0 6,884 0.00 MIN 0 5,978 1.25
BAL 1 6,775 1.75 NYM 0 6,750 0.00
BOS 1 6,710 1.75 NYY 4 6,750 2.50
CHC 1 6,320 3.00 OAK 0 5,195 2.50
CWS 0 6,320 1.25 PHI 0 6,770 0.00
CIN 0 6,571 0.00 PIT 0 6,619 0.00
CLE 0 6,511 0.00 SDP 0 5,636 2.50
COL 0 5,835 1.25 SFG 0 5,189 2.50
DET 0 6,425 1.25 SEA 1 4,820 4.25
HOU 0 6,711 0.00 STL 0 6,421 1.25
KCR 0 6,248 1.25 TBR 0 7,282 0.00
LAA 0 5,554 2.50 TEX 2 6,499 3.75
LAD 3 5,530 5.00 TOR 0 6,442 1.25
MIA 2 7,485 2.50 WSN 0 6,788 0.00
– History = History with Japanese players.
– Dist. = Distance from Japan.
– Category Score is Out of 5.

The Dodgers got a perfect score for the category, followed closely by the Mariners. The Cubs and Rangers also scored highly, while 10 teams were shut out completely.

Category 6: Fans

Some players prefer to play in front of as many fans as possible. More importantly for Ohtani, a bigger fan base means more marketing opportunities, which should be significantly more lucrative than his salary. The final five points of the overall score are devoted to the Fans category.

Market size accounts for 70 percent of the Fans category. Four markets comprising seven teams earned a score of 10 points: New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Toronto. Teams playing in top 10 media markets got five points (Atlanta, Boston, Houston, Oakland, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Texas and Washington). All other teams got zero points.

The other 30 percent of the Fans category relates to ballpark attendance. Ten points went to teams with average attendance of at least 39,000 in 2017. Eight points were given to teams with 35,000, six points for 30,000, four points for 25,000, two for 20,000, and zero for anything less.

Fans
Team Market Size 2017 Avg. Att. Score Team Market Size 2017 Avg. Att. Score
ARI 12 26,350 0.60 MIL   35 31,589 0.90
ATL  9 30,929 2.65 MIN   15 25,324 0.60
BAL 26 25,042 0.60 NYM    1 30,378 4.40
BOS  8 36,021 2.95 NYY    1 38,851 4.70
CHC  3 39,501 5.00 OAK    6 18,219 1.75
CWS  3 20,117 3.80 PHI    4 23,523 2.05
CIN 36 22,678 0.30 PIT   23 23,697 0.30
CLE 18 25,286 0.60 SDP   28 26,401 0.60
COL 17 36,465 1.20 SFG    6 40,786 3.25
DET 13 28,662 0.60 SEA   14 26,364 0.60
HOU 10 29,675 2.35 STL   21 42,567 1.50
KCR 33 27,412 0.60 TBR   11 15,477 0.00
LAA  2 37,279 4.70 TEX    5 30,960 2.65
LAD  2 46,492 5.00 TOR 2.5* 39,554 5.00
MIA 16 20,395 0.30 WSN    7 31,173 2.65
– For Market Size, a higher ranking is better.
– Avg. Att. = Average Attendance
– Category Score is Out of 5.
* Of course, Toronto isn’t an American media market at all. However, it’s the top market in Canada and is similar to Los Angeles and Chicago in terms of size, hence the 2.5 score.

The Cubs and Dodgers grabbed all five points in the category, while the Angels, Mets and Yankees all scored highly. Poor Tampa Bay received no points whatsoever in this category.

Total Score

According to this algorithm, the Yankees are miles ahead of the competition. The Rangers are far behind, but still comfortably in second place. Then the Mariners, Dodgers, Red Sox and Cleveland are clustered behind the two front runners.

Does this mean Ohtani has to sign with the Yankees? Of course not! They may be best positioned to bid for his services by this metric, but perhaps the player and his agent have something else in mind. Maybe he’ll insist on playing for a west coast team, whereas that was only a small piece of this algorithm. Perhaps there’s some other factor unbeknownst to the public. It’s even possible he just chooses whichever team signs Darvish.

Total Score
Team Team Interest (35) Playing Time (25) Money (20) Team Success (10) Cultural Comfort (5) Fans (5) Total (100)
NYY 33.3 25.0 20.0 10.0 2.5 4.7 95.5
TEX 31.5 15.5 19.2  0.0 3.8 2.7 72.6
SEA 33.3  7.0 12.0  6.0 4.3 0.6 63.1
LAD 35.0  0.0  4.0 10.0 5.0 5.0 59.0
BOS 19.3 16.0  3.6 10.0 1.8 3.0 53.6
CLE 15.8 22.5  2.0 10.0 0.0 0.6 50.9
MIN  1.8 25.0 17.6  0.0 1.3 0.6 46.2
SFG 31.5  0.0  3.2  2.0 2.5 3.3 42.5
SDP 33.3  2.5  0.8  0.0 2.5 0.6 39.7
CHC 15.8  2.5  3.2 10.0 3.0 5.0 39.5
TOR 15.8  7.0  3.2  6.0 1.3 5.0 38.2
CWS  1.8 24.5  1.2  2.0 1.3 3.8 34.5
WSN 15.8  2.5  3.2 10.0 0.0 2.7 34.1
BAL 17.5  6.5  6.4  0.0 1.8 0.6 32.8
PIT 17.5  0.0 14.4  0.0 0.0 0.3 32.2
ARI 17.5  0.0  4.4  6.0 1.3 0.6 29.8
HOU  1.8 13.5  2.0 10.0 0.0 2.4 29.6
KCR  0.0 25.0  2.4  0.0 1.3 0.6 29.3
TBR  0.0 16.0  0.8  6.0 0.0 0.0 22.8
OAK  0.0 16.0  1.2  0.0 2.5 1.8 21.5
CIN 15.8  2.0  1.2  0.0 0.0 0.3 19.3
MIA  0.0  2.0 11.2  0.0 2.5 0.3 16.0
STL  1.8  2.5  2.4  6.0 1.3 1.5 15.4
NYM  0.0  2.5  2.4  6.0 0.0 4.4 15.3
MIL  0.0  2.5  4.0  6.0 1.3 0.9 14.7
LAA  0.0  4.5  2.4  0.0 2.5 4.7 14.1
DET  0.0  6.5  3.6  0.0 1.3 0.6 12.0
PHI  0.0  2.5  4.8  0.0 0.0 2.1  9.4
COL  0.0  2.5  2.0  2.0 1.3 1.2  9.0
ATL  0.0  2.5  1.6  2.0 0.0 2.7  8.8

However he reaches a decision, the pursuit of Ohtani will be the most intriguing story of the offseason. He could sign with the Yankees or Rangers for all the aforementioned reasons, or he could do something completely unexpected. Regardless of the ending, the story will be fascinating to watch.

References & Resources


Daniel R. Epstein is an elementary special education teacher and president of the Somerset County Education Association. He contributes to Off the Bench at www.offthebenchbaseball.com. Follow him on Twitter @depstein1983.
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TwinPeaks
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TwinPeaks
The Twins have worse World Series odds than Giants, Mets, White Sox, and Braves!?!? I’ll tell you what – Ohtani would look pretty good on the Twins and increase their World Series odds a lot. Their hitting is young and good – 4th in the AL last year – they could use a productive DH though! Their pitching is what needs to improve. With Ohtani, Santana, and Berrios, their rotation would look suddenly solid, and the bullpen, which is the easiest area to improve, would be the one remaining weakness…. Not that he is likely to land in MN, but… Read more »
TKDC
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Member
TKDC
I’m sorry to say this, truly I am, but this article is bananas. First, I think anyone who follows baseball and has common sense could just intuit a much more realistic ranking. But there are also many glaring flaws in this methodology. First, the “Interest” category is insane. You simply cannot compare the old system of international free agents to this one. The big money teams beat out the other teams because they were able to pay more, because they had a larger budget and could risk a player ending up being worthless. That is not the case now. Every… Read more »
Joey Butts
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Joey Butts

Don’t be so critical. The author never presents this article as anything definitive. He freely admits that it is flawed. The important thing is that he did a lot of legwork to come up with a rough ranking. Additional tweaking may be necessary, but this gets us most of the way there.

sadtrombone
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sadtrombone

While I think this was a valiant first attempt, there are definitely some problems with this. For one, physical distance from Japan is only measured east to west; direct flights to Japan from NY go over the top.

mikejunt
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Member
mikejunt

The playing time metric is pretty bad. The idea that the Dodgers don’t have the playing time for Shohei Ohtani in their rotation is laughable at best.

There are probably few NL teams better situated to give Ohtani the mix of PAs and IP that he will want.

Basically any team can accommodate his playing time requests unless they are the 3 or 4 AL teams with a DH who will end up hitting better than he does: Encarnacion, Cruz, likely JD Martinez, and possibly no one after that.

scott
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scott

I dont understand how any team can accommodate his requests for PAs? How can NL teams do this? He hasn’t played the OF in Japan since 2014. Is it really realistic an NL team will play him in the OF?

Colin_NL
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Colin_NL

I think including market size under the fans category is a mistake. I think they should be separate categories. For instance, St. Louis had one of the best attendance numbers in baseball last year, but still gets knocked heavily in this category for being in a small market, which I don’t think really reflects how much the fandom would affect Ohtani’s decision to come or not come.

For the record, I think market size is an important factor, I just think it’s unfair to include it under “The Fans”.

sadtrombone
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sadtrombone
To me, the biggest “if” is whether teams will offer him the DH slot twice in between starts, whether teams will let him try 1B, and how big of a factor that plays. NL teams rank far lower here than I would think because of the way this is calculated. There is one bit of logic that I think is screwed up, but that I don’t think affects the analysis too much…cultural comfort is probably something more like 40% of the equation, but one of the best measures for that (Japanese players on the teams) is placed in there. I’d… Read more »
Jetsy Extrano
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Jetsy Extrano

I’d also think a Japanese player might find more familiar in NYC than in KC, despite NYC being on the zero-points coast.

Trigaux
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Member
Trigaux

The data sets used here are pretty iffy. The Rays have scouted Ohtani AND are the leading team pushing 2 way players with McKay. They also signed Akinori Iwamura, who was part of their world series team. They have lots of drawbacks, but deserve to be much further up the list.

carter
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Member
carter

Hey, despite all the criticisms here, which was bound to happen, I like what you did and anyway, all for fun really. Great job, fun.

Paul22
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Paul22
Could not disagree more on the money part, although the Yankees lead the way there too. International bonus money is not an important factor as we are talking 1-2 million difference between teams 1. Endorsement potential. This requires a large market as well as a successful team. Dollars will flow for US and Japan companies. In Japan he will now be a national product instead of a local/regional product. In NY Ohtani could dwarf Jeters 20 million a year endorsements at his peak. That depends on how good he is. 2. He will discuss parameters for salary increases in his… Read more »
TwinPeaks
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TwinPeaks

I think most likely it will be the Yankees or whoever gets Darvish. I wonder if Darvish will get a little bit extra on his contract because of that.

scott
Member
scott

If he really is set on getting the plate appearances doesn’t that pretty much eliminate every single NL team, including the Dodgers? Do the other factors even matter if he is set on getting Abs? There is no way he plays the outfield (hasn’t in Japan since 2014).

Yehoshua Friedman
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Yehoshua Friedman

I don’t know that and neither do you. Just because he hasn’t played OF since ’14 doesn’t mean he won’t do something different in MLB.