Every MLB organization could use a player like Shohei Otani of the Nippon Ham Fighters. But, the Seattle Mariners could use him more than most.
The Mariners need Otani to regain relevance in their hometown; Seattle needs the planet’s most publicized free agent to regain prominence on the baseball landscape.
Fair or not, a perceived lack of commitment to winning by previous ownership has eroded the size and enthusiasm of Mariners fans. Heightening the malaise, the club owns the longest active postseason drought in MLB — 16 years.
Things could worsen for Mariners faithful in the near-term. The Buffalo Bills of the NFL may reach the playoffs this season. If that happens, Seattle will own the longest futility streak in North American professional sports.
Compounding matters further for the Mariners; the recent success of the next-door neighbor Seahawks.
Seattle’s NFL entrant has been a well-run and highly successful organization over the last half-decade. Five consecutive postseason appearances and two Super Bowls trump 16 years of disappointment, especially among young fans.
To recapture the hearts and dollars of an audience with better and more interesting sports options, the Mariners need a dramatic game-changer.
That’s where Otani comes in.
Often referred to as a Japanese version of Babe Ruth, Otani is a dual-threat player capable of throwing 100-MPH fastballs and hitting tape measure homers. As I said earlier, any MLB club could use a player like him.
Beyond the 23-year-old’s potential value on the field, acquiring a player of Otani’s stature would lift Seattle back to a prominence enjoyed when two of the world’s best baseball players were Mariners.
For a decade, Seattle was a baseball destination thanks to Ken Griffey Jr, who inspired fans with his generational talent and joyful exuberance. Kids everywhere — and some adults — still wear their ball caps backwards because of Junior.
On the heels of Griffey’s departure came Japanese import Ichiro Suzuki, who laid the foundation for his Hall of Fame career as a Mariner. A one-of-a-kind player, Ichiro wowed fans on two continents with his blazing speed, prolific hitting, and cannon arm.
Those years are long gone though. Seattle’s baseball fever has since waned due to years of mediocrity; overtaken by excitement for winning football and soccer.
Signing Otani not only presents an opportunity to change the perception of the Mariners as a downtrodden organization. He could significantly improve their fortune in the win-loss column.
Otani missed a large portion of last season with ankle and thigh problems, but he’s just one year removed from a 1.86 ERA and striking out 174 hitters in 140 innings. Moreover, the left-handed hitter blasted 22 home runs in 382 plate appearances in 2016.
Since Otani is testing free agency before age-25, strict financial rules prevent richer organizations from gaining an undue advantage over smaller market clubs. Essentially, the playing field is relatively level for all 30 clubs. In the end, it’ll come down to where Otani wants to live and play.
Every team with serious interest in Otani will make their best sales pitch to the right-handed hurler. Seattle is no different. General manager Jerry Dipoto visited Japan in September to see the superstar perform for himself; other senior club management have made the journey too.
For the Mariners though, CEO John Stanton and Dipoto must be more persuasive than the competition. Otherwise, the franchise risks remaining a perpetual afterthought in the psyche of Seattle sports fans.
Don’t get me wrong, Dipoto has done a superb job of making his roster younger and more athletic. Nevertheless, the success of next season still largely rests on the collective shoulders of an aging core of Nelson Cruz, Robinson Cano, Felix Hernandez, and Kyle Seager.
With little help on the way via their farm system and their best-known players showing signs of age-related regression, the Mariners must find a way re-energize their beleaguered fan base.
Shohei Otani is that way.
Yes, it’s possible the Mariners reach the postseason next year without Otani. However, earning a wild card berth won’t instantly win over a region that’s grown accustomed to annual championship runs.
Eventually, Dipoto’s slow-burn restructuring may help the Mariners achieve sustainable success. But, will there be anyone left to care when it happens?
Seattle needs Shohei Otani.