Ross Atkins Shohei Ohtani

Ross Atkins’ Hands are Tied by Shohei Ohtani

Thanks to a last minute agreement between the NPB and the MLBPA, reports are now out there that Shohei Ohtani will finally be posted on Dec 2. This will come as a considerable relief to all the teams who consider themselves candidates to sign him, not least among them the Toronto Blue Jays.

In fact, probably the single biggest factor in Toronto’s offseason plans is whether or not they can sign Ohtani, not just because he’s a generational talent but because of the implications he brings for further roster construction. This is compounded by the fact that they are a team with a legitimate clear path to offering what he seems to want most: a chance to be a legitimate two-way player.

Certainly, this is true of teams other than Toronto. This is a big reason why off-season player movement has been almost unprecedentedly slow this year. And while one would not necessarily expect it to be a problem for all teams, it’s absolutely a problem that goes beyond the teams who legitimately are in play for Ohtani.

Let me illustrate. As far as we know, Baltimore doesn’t give any indication of being in tough on Ohtani, but they have spawned some rumors that they covet some of the more desirable free agent starting pitchers. Let’s take Lance Lynn for example.

From Baltimore’s point of view, the play would be “while the other monied teams are looking at japan, let’s swoop in and grab Lance Lynn” but the problem with that is that Lynn’s agent is certainly telling him “be patient, only one team can sign Ohtani and a lot of those failed suitors will check in on you after he signs.” Thus, the O’s are blocked from making the big move that might be the linchpin of their offseason as well. Even teams not specifically looking for a SP or OF as their primary acquisition may well be hedging their use of available finances against those sub-markets. Likewise players at other positions may be waiting to entertain the idea of signing until they see how Ohtani contenders shift their plans in the wake of not signing him.

Because of this concern, it limits any potential moves in the mean time. Let’s explore why for a moment. The Blue Jays, by consensus, have three primary needs and two secondary needs to fill. They would like to add an impact SP (Ross Atkins has said “an impact pitcher either as a starter or in the bullpen” but let’s be real, your major impact is going to come in the rotation) both as an upgrade and not a little bit because they cannot be fully confident Aaron Sanchez will be back to his 2016 health. They absolutely must add an above average (at least) outfielder, preferably in a corner. They also really need a productive player as a reserve capable of stepping in at SS or 2B without hurting the team. Beyond that, if the dollars allow, a better reserve catcher and some veteran depth in the bullpen are concerns.

In regards to the opening for a starting pitcher, the potential availability of Ohtani freezes any impact move. If you add him, there’s no obvious role for any other high profile FA you might be thinking of. You can neither spend crazy money on Yu Darvish or try and score an upside play like Tyler Chatwood if you can’t offer them a regular turn in the rotation. Literally the minute Ohtani signs with anyone, GMs across the league will be blowing up the phones of the agents representing their preferred option. But for now, everyone waits (unless they recognize themselves to not be a player for Ohtani in any case).

Similarly, the Jays can’t make a serious move for corner outfielder without considering Ohtani. While it’s not a complete blockade – the acquired OF could always move to the other corner, but the situation does pose a consideration in terms of allocation of resources. Would Toronto, or any team, be as anxious to add – for example – Andrew McCutchen at a cost of prospects and over $14 million if they have already added a bat like Ohtani’s to their team. To be clear, I certainly would, and I’m inclined to think that the Jays would. But I’m not at all sure that they would do so BEFORE knowing whether Ohtani is on their roster.

The other positions are not as directly impacted, but the major impact is money. To return to the McCutchen example: the money he makes comes off the top of their available budget for off-season acquisitions so whether or not you could, again for example, go offer Eduardo Nunez, his likely eight million dollars a year is tied to whether or not you’ve spent that money in the outfield – money you are much more likely to have spent if Ohtani didn’t sign with the team.

The same basic principle applies with the catcher need and the potential for adding relievers. The team can field a good bullpen with current personnel, but in a situation where you are going for it, more depth can only help. There are opportunities to add a lefty (the bigger need) and a right-handed veteran and in so doing push kids like Ramirez, Dermody, and Mayza back to Buffalo for crucial depth. There is solid depth in the relief market and the Jays probably wouldn’t act early in any case, but if they did have a particular target they wanted to scoop the market on, then again they’d have to make a calculation on the price point depending on the aforementioned implications.

SImply put, the entire team budget situation changes by getting an impact player like Ohtani for the league mimimum.

I should also acknowledge the possibility that I’m being too optimistic here. While the Jays management has been nothing but consistent in asserting that they are fully committed to contending in 2018, it’s not completely impossible that this is an example of messaging which is relevant to luring Ohtani. There’s a non-zero possibility that if/when he signs elsewhere, the front office re-evaluates the opportunity cost of making that run and decides that the long term interests of the club are better served by some strategic subtraction rather than ramping up.

In any case, now that the Ohtani Sweepstakes has a certain date, those of us trying to get warm by the hot stove can start to feel the heat in earnest.

Lead Photo © Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

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