Pitching Otani: How Blue Jays could lure Japanese star to Toronto

Arden Zwelling joins Jeff Blair to discuss the amazing story of Japanese baseball star and dual-threat, Shohei Otani, who projects as both a front of the rotation starter and a middle of the lineup hitter, with potential for 20+ home runs

Pat Gillick had a leg up on his peers one of the first times a generational baseball talent moved from Japan to North America.

He was general manager of the Seattle Mariners in late 2000 when the club inked Ichiro Suzuki to a three-year contract. But the signing wasn’t just a result of the Mariners winning the negotiation bid for the outfielder’s services.

“The U.S. situations are about dollars and cents. The Asian situations, from my experience, are about relationships,” said Gillick, now a senior adviser to the president and GM for the Philadelphia Phillies. “We had a tremendous relationship with Ichiro and so consequently, we knew that if we got the rights to him, we were going to be able to sign him.”

Jim Colborn, the Mariners’ director of Pacific Rim scouting at the time, had developed a close relationship with Suzuki. Colborn spent time in the early 1990s as a pitching coach on Suzuki’s Japanese Pacific League team, the Orix Blue Wave, and was instrumental in the star’s decision to head to Seattle.

Seventeen years later, a player with perhaps as much superstar potential could be coming to MLB. Shohei Otani is known as the Japanese Babe Ruth because of his elite abilities as both a hitter and pitcher. Unlike Ichiro, though, Otani will be available to all 30 teams because of revisions to the league’s international signing rules, a system still being negotiated by MLB and the NPB.

“You move to another generation, things change,” said Gillick, who was GM of the Toronto Blue Jays from 1978 to 1994. “But I know that relationships still go a long way, so whoever is building a relationship with this player probably is going to have the best opportunity if he decides to come over.”

Otani is largely a mystery and it’s nearly impossible to gauge which organizations have fostered a strong bond with him, if any. In that case, the key to acquiring the 23-year-old might boil down to a superior pitch and there’s little doubt some front offices are hunkered down right now, refining their recruitment strategies.

Assuming the Blue Jays are among the teams with some interest, here’s a look at some selling points they could include in a potential pitch to Otani…

We’ll let you be like Babe Ruth

Otani is said to covet the opportunity to hit and pitch in the majors, and the Blue Jays — like all American League teams — have the advantage in allowing him to do that.

It’s unlikely the Blue Jays would use Otani to fill an outfield opening but one possible scenario could have him pitch out of the team’s starting rotation and see time as a designated hitter on some non-throwing days.

The Blue Jays, of course, have Kendrys Morales currently occupying the DH spot, so barring a trade, the team would need to be creative in its lineup construction to accommodate the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters star.

Otani batted .286/.358/.500 with 48 home runs, 70 doubles and 166 RBI in 403 games across five seasons in Japan. As a pitcher, he owns a 2.52 ERA and 10.3 K/9 rate over 85 games, 82 of which were starts, and 543 innings.

You will feel at home here

This is among the easier selling points for the Blue Jays. Toronto is a diverse, international city not much different from other major markets in the U.S., such as Chicago, Los Angeles and New York.

Toronto’s Japanese population is listed at approximately 30,000, according to Rui Umezawa, a chief adviser to the city’s consul general of Japan. He says T.O.’s multiculturalism is the most appealing factor to foreigners and the city provides a dose of home for Japanese residents.

“They can get a lot of choices as far as Japanese food is concerned, whether it’s buying Japanese groceries, or going out for Japanese food,” Umezawa said. “Japanese people from places like Tokyo would be very used to having restaurant-type of food and various cultural things available from around the world and Toronto offers that as well, so that would be very appealing.

“From the perspective of once they get here, what do they find? I think it’s how safe it is here,” Umezawa added. “Relatively low crime rate, you can go out at night without worrying too much. That is a big plus that Japanese people find living in Toronto.”

Umezawa highlights a burgeoning stretch on Dundas street that’s becoming known as Toronto’s Little Japan. It features several Japanese businesses, including Izakayas (Japanese gastropubs), ramen restaurants, Japanese-style coffee shops and Uncle Tetsu’s Japanese Cheesecake.

Shohei Otani throws right-handed but is a left-handed hitter. (Toru Takahash/AP)

We can offer you future success

The Blue Jays are presumably not a championship favourite in 2018 the way the Astros, Cubs, Dodgers and Yankees figure to be. However, Toronto boasts a top-tier farm system and could entice Otani on the chance to get in near the ground floor as the organization repositions itself into a stable contender.

Top prospects Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette will be mentioned in the pitch because the Blue Jays hope they’ll be the foundation of a championship core going forward. It’s worth noting that Otani’s not much older than the duo.

You also don’t have to be a contender to lure free agents. In 2014, the Chicago Cubs successfully courted ace Jon Lester following a season in which they finished last in their division.

The Cubs sent the free-agent left-hander a fictional DVD depicting a win over the Yankees in Game 7 of a World Series. They used some imagery from a 2012 Playstation advertisement and also featured on-field celebrations and media coverage in the video.

“We felt like not everyone will read a letter or flip through a brochure. But if you get a DVD, it’s going to be watched because of the curiosity factor,” Cubs general manager Theo Epstein recalled last year.

You can be the top Asian athlete in Canadian history

If Otani signs here and succeeds, he could soon attain iconic status. He would easily become the most prominent Japanese athlete this country has ever seen and it’s not a stretch to say Otani might also be considered Canada’s most prominent athlete of Asian descent.

Patrick Chan and Paul Kariya come to mind as other choices, but with Otani playing for a major Canadian team, he may take the crown. This is probably not a deciding factor for Otani, as he doesn’t appear to have preexisting ties to Canada, but achieving a unique status that’s not exactly afforded in the U.S. might prove compelling.

“The Japanese community would be very excited to have a Japanese player playing for the Blue Jays,” said Umezawa. “He would feel very welcome. It would be a big source of pride.”

Don’t underestimate the sponsorship opportunities that come with representation, as well. Suzuki was an advertising darling when he signed with Seattle and Otani could be the same in Canada, a nation that prides itself on diversity.


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