The well of good news in Seattle sports wasn’t going to linger forever, or even for long. But given the effort and resources the Mariners put into landing free agent Japanese star Shohei Ohtani, the well suddenly seems Southern California dry, no rain in sight.
The Mariners may have finished second, but in this case, it means being tied for last with 29 other teams. Worse, the winner of the Ohtani sweepstakes Friday was the Angels, a division rival and general manager Jerry Dipoto’s old club that he left on less than good terms.
The line forms to the left for all who wish to buy Dipoto a cocktail.
The statement Friday from Ohtani’s agent, Nez Balelo:
“This morning, after a thorough, detailed process, Shohei Ohtani has decided to sign with the Los Angeles Angels. Shohei is humbled and flattered by all the time and effort that so many teams put into their presentations and sincerely thanks them for their professionalism. In the end, he felt a strong connection with the Angels and believes they can best help him reach his goals in Major League Baseball.
“I want to thank the clubs and everyone else for respecting our intent to make this very important process as private as possible. We were resolved to having a fair, methodical process. Teams clearly put in a lot of work, and we are grateful for that.”
The pursuit of Ohtani, who will cost the Angels a $20 million posting fee to his Pacific League club, the Nippon Ham Fighters, was urgent for the Mariners.
They depleted a meager farm system of four good prospects to help gather the most international slot money of any rival, nearly the maximum allowable $3.55 million signing bonus under baseball rules. They publicly made an elaborate bid for a 23-year-old player projected to be a pitching ace as well as a good hitter, whose contract could be under club control for six years.
In the November debut of a Mariners podcast, The Wheelhouse, Dipoto was candid about his desire for Ohtani’s services:
“We want to sell the Seattle experience. What it means to the Japanese-American, our culture and how this organization has trended — and trended so positively — when we have a star Japanese player. And make no mistake — this is a star Japanese player. He’s talented. He’s gifted. He’s going to make some team a lot better.
“We have made no bones about it in talking to other clubs. We’ve gathered as much as we can . . . We are not going to leave a stone unturned in the efforts to do it again if the opportunity exists. We’ll be responsible in how we do it, but we understand that this is a one-time buying opportunity, and you have to be prepared.
To me, the worst thing we can be is sitting on the sideline, being too conservative — sitting on our hands when an opportunity to change the history of your organization comes along, because that’s what this might be.”
They pushed in all available chips, and busted.
The Mariners were reported to be among the final seven teams that also included the Padres, Giants, Rangers, Cubs and Dodgers. While the Mariners finish last in that group in the category of historical baseball excellence, it was believed by some that the club’s history with Japanese players, led by Ichiro, would have meant something. Even though the club is no longer owned by Japanese video-game giant Nintendo, the club had at least one Japanese player on the major league roster since 1998.
But that may have worked against them. Media speculation included the notion that Ohtani didn’t want to be compared to his countrymen who previously played in his new American home.
For sure, it helped that the Angels, 80-82 in an injury-pickled 2017 season, have in Mike Trout a superstar in his prime. The Mariners roster is heavy on expensive, aging veterans, particularly at DH, where Nelson Cruz had substantial numbers in his age-36 season.
The Mariners, who valued Ohtani’s pitching skills over his plate skills — Ohtani was 42-15 with a 2.52 ERA and a 1.08 WHIP in five seasons as a pitcher, and has a hitter was a .286/.358/.500 with 48 homers and 166 RBIs over 403 games — were offering part-time DH work in Cruz’s final contract year.
The Angels would seem to have a similar roadblock in Albert Pujols, 38 next month, but he was reported to be on a weight-loss program that would allow him to play more than the six games he played at first base the past season.
Whatever were the decisive factors, Dipoto came up short. The blow is undeniably large, made worse by the loss to a division rival.
He is right that sitting out the sweepstakes was not an option for a team 16 years gone from the postseason. But the new rules governing international signings, which made slot money suddenly expensive to acquire, cost the Mariners where they had little to lose — the farm system.
In a way, the outcome was like the trade last winter of RHP Taijuan Walker and SS Ketel Marte for SS Jean Segura and OF Mitch Haniger. While few Mariners fans would un-do that deal, the fact was that it made weaker the club’s weakest roster link — the starting rotation.
The four prospects traded included two of the organization’s top pitching prospects, Thyago Vieria, 24 (White Sox) and Nick Neidert , 21 (Marlins). It’s true that Neidert was part of a package that helped acquire All-Star 2B Dee Gordon. But Gordon is being asked by the Mariners to play center field for the first time in his career, another move with some added risks.
From a Seattle-sports-news perspective this week, the Ohtani outcome generates a feeling similar to being a longtime Sonics fan. It’s hard coming in second.