The Mariners debuted their own organizational podcast on Wednesday evening with general manager Jerry Dipoto. The first episode of “The Wheelhouse” was hosted by broadcaster Aaron Goldsmith and featured him asking Dipoto questions about the team.
It isn’t difficult to coax Dipoto into speaking on the record about any sort of topic. However, following his scouting trip to Japan in September, he’s been unusually quiet on the topic of trying to sign two-way Japanese phenom Shohei Ohtani. Asked directly about Ohtani on multiple occasions, Dipoto remained purposefully vague, trying to not violate any rules about potential free agents that are still with teams.
But with Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB), Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association reaching an agreement on a posting system for players on Tuesday — it still needs to be officially ratified in a vote by owners on Dec. 1 — Dipoto talked and talked and talked about Ohtani on the new podcast. His self-imposed dam of silence had burst.
“I’m so excited just to be able to talk about what I saw, instead of constantly saying the right thing,” he said. “We are so excited, just like 29 other clubs in the big leagues, to finally reach this point and actively pursue Shohei Ohtani.”
So what did he see from Ohtani in Japan?
“He’s an incredibly gifted player on both sides of the ball,” he said. “He’s a gifted pitcher with a fastball that ranges from 93 to 103 mph, which is pretty phenomenal by itself. But when you add the fact that he has two polished secondary pitches — he has a hard sharp slider and a split-finger that he uses as both as a changeup and a strikeout pitch — they are both advanced. He’s been a Cy Young quality level starter in the NPB.
He’s also been a MVP level hitter, playing DH and outfield with big time power. I’ve jokingly referred to him internally as Roy Hobbs. He’s almost too good to be true when you watch him play.”
In Bernard Malamud’s book and later in the movie as portrayed by Robert Redford, the Hobbs character could basically do anything on the field. Ohtani is apparently similar.
“I have seen players hit the ball 500 feet and I’ve seen players throw a ball 100 mph,” Dipoto said. “I’ve just never seen one player do both of those things.”
Because Ohtani is being posted at age 23 instead of waiting till age 25, he’s subject to the most recent MLB collective bargaining agreement, meaning he must follow international amateur free agent market rules. That limits how much teams can pay him in a signing bonus while limiting his annual salary. Given MLB’s harsh punishment of the Braves for cheating the international signing system, teams will be ultra-careful and MLB will be monitoring the Ohtani situation closely. Any signing bonus for Ohtani is subject to and limited to the respective international bonus pool for each team. Each team has a limit to what it can spend. The Mariners currently have $1.55 million available to offer, while the Rangers ($3.53 million), Yankees ($3.5 million), Twins ($3.07 million) and Pirates ($2.26 million) have more.
The Mariners recently upped their bonus pool to offer Ohtani by recently trading reliever Thyago Vieira to the White Sox in exchange for $500,000. They will continue to try to add to that bonus pool if possible to up their offer.
“We’re not going to leave a stone unturned in the efforts to do it again if the opportunity arises,” Dipoto said. “We’ll be responsible in how we do it, but we understand 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 the organization comes along. Because this is what it might be.”
Seattle could acquire about $2.3 million in bonus money from other teams in trades, but getting those dollars won’t be simple with so many teams wanting to make a run at Ohtani.
But with the limit on the signing bonus and Ohtani being held to the six years of club control before free agency, the hope/belief for teams like the Mariners is that money won’t be the determining factor of where he goes.
“He’s coming over as a 23 year old, two years prior to when he would be exempt, he’s coming over with the knowledge that he’s leaving a fair amount of money on the table, which I think speaks a ton about his interest level in where he’s going,” Dipoto said. “Whether it’s the team he’s playing for, the teammates he’ll saddle up with once the season starts, or what he feels as a comfort level with the organization that recruits him, this is may be the most unique circumstance that I can recall in baseball. It is all about how you as a city, as an organization and as human beings appeal to an individual rather than the final paycheck, which in my lifetime, has never really been a thing.”
The Mariners have been working on their recruiting pitch, obviously playing on the organization’s past successful history with Japanese players like Ichiro, Hisashi Iwakuma, Kenji Johjima and Kaz Sasaki.
“The history of the Japanese player in Seattle has been so celebrated and some of the greatest players in our franchise’s history have been from Japan,” Dipoto said. “There is an attraction there. There has to be for a player who is as respectful of those who came before him as Shohei Ohtani appears to be, that I think is a positive in our favor, especially since all those players, so far, have been more than happy or willing to assist us in the recruiting process, among others.”
While he didn’t mention it in the podcast, the Mariners are looking to use Ken Griffey Jr. and others in the pitch as well.
“We’re not joking around,” Dipoto said. “We’re bringing the big guns. We’re bringing the ‘A’ game. When we sit down, we’ll be sitting down with very notable faces and that is a part of what we want to sell. We want to sell the Seattle experience and what it means to the Japanese-Americans, our culture and how this organization has trended, and trended so positively when we have the star Japanese player. And make no mistake — this is a star Japanese player. He’s gifted. He’s going to make some team a lot better.”
Dipoto offered some insight into Seattle’s “A” game for recruitment.
“We have spent most of the last year preparing for this moment,” Dipoto said. “Whether it’s written presentations, or it’s something aesthetic for him to touch and feel. We’ve put together a film on the merits of Seattle and the Mariners. It’s just different ways to appeal to him. And we’re hopeful at some point we get to sit down in the same room whether it be on his home turf in Japan or whether it be here in Seattle, or preferably both, where he gets to come meet us and see what our city is about.”
Part of that presentation to Ohtani will be a usage plan allowing him to be a starting pitcher and hitting on days when he isn’t pitching. Last season, an ankle injury forced him to only DH and not play the outfield when he wasn’t pitching. The Mariners have a pretty good designated hitter in Nelson Cruz. But Dipoto said the team is willing to use Cruz in the outfield a few days a week if it means getting Ohtani to sign.
“That is one of the tradeoffs we are willing to make,” Dipoto said. “I think Nelson will be foaming at the mouth for the opportunity to get back in the field a couple times a week if need be. That is possible.”
After all the Ohtani talk, Dipoto discussed the background on the trades for first baseman Ryon Healy and reliever Nick Rumbelow and then food because he’s a foodie.
If Dipoto is this verbose every week — and he usually is — the podcast will be pretty interesting in the coming months.