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There’s a good reason he’s called ‘Japan’s Babe Ruth’ – and Mariners are in running to sign him

Japanese baseball star Shohei Ohtani. (Getty Images)

SEATTLE — The U.S.S. Mariner feels like a sinking ship these days.

The Mariners finished 78-84 in 2017, a year the team was expected to vie for the playoffs. The team’s stars – Nelson Cruz, Robinson Cano, and Felix Hernandez – are aging. A protracted rebuild seems almost inevitable.

Almost.

Almost, because on the horizon, cutting through the detritus of failed Mariners like Chone Figgins and Dustin Ackley, sits 23-year-old Shohei Ohtani.

Ohtani is a star pitcher and batter in Japan's major league. Often called Japan's Babe Ruth,  Ohtani announced earlier this year he would pursue a career in the MLB. He quickly became the talk of the baseball world, and is considered by nearly all baseball writers to be the hottest "get" of the offseason.

He's cheap, he's young and he's one of the best players in the world.  Some even compare signing Ohtani to winning the lottery.

Less than a month after Ohtani officially announced he was coming to the majors, the Mariners are one of only seven teams left in the running to sign him.

Q13 News spoke with Seattle Times beat writer Ryan Divish about why Ohtani is so highly regarded, the likelihood of him landing in Seattle and what he could bring if he decides to don the trident.

Divish on Ohtani

Divish has no qualms about how rare a player like Ohtani is.

"He's different than any player to come around in a long time," Divish told Q13 News. "Because he's a pitcher, because he's a hitter, there hasn't been a case really since Babe Ruth. There have been other players that have tried to be both way players, but he's different in every aspect."

Ohtani is special for two primary reasons. First , he's considered an elite pitcher and a great hitter. Ohtani had a 2.25 ERA in 16 starts with 140 strikeouts in his 2016 season for the Nippon Ham. He also managed a batting line of .333/.435/.631, putting him among the NPB's best.

Rarely do you see such dominance both at the plate and on the mound.

"Jerry Dipoto, the Mariners general manager, probably put it best," Divish said. "You can find guys that can throw a 100 MPH fastball and you can find a guy that can hit a ball 500 feet. You rarely find a kind of guy that can do both at the same time."

The second reason he's special is simple: he's cheap, despite his superstar status. Because of the intricacies of MLB's international signing system, Ohtani forgoes quite a bit of money by deciding to come over this season instead of waiting until he's 25.

"If he came here at age 25 he could make unlimited dollars," Divish said. "Now, by coming here at age 23, he's limited to what teams can pay ... money isn't a factor in this."

Almost every team in the MLB wanted to sign Ohtani. He quickly whittled his list of potential teams down to seven: The San Francisco Giants, the Texas Rangers, The Los Angeles Angeles, the Chicago Cubs, the Los Angeles Dodgers, the San Diego Padres and the Seattle Mariners. Ohtani has met with representatives from each team.

Divish said given Ohtani's elite nature, he expects him to be ready to play on opening day. Signing a superstar pitcher and a great hitter could ripple through the lineup, Divish said, leaving room open for an extra bench player and an expanded pitching rotation.

"If you sign him to your team, you would be wise to go to a six-man rotation," Divish said.

The Mariners know how to handle Japanese stars. The team has had success with players such as Ichiro, Kazuhiro Sasaki, and Hisahi Iwakuma, Divish said. Seattle's proximity to Japan and the fact that many of the team's games are broadcast on Japanese television also opens opportunities for more endorsement deals.

Despite Japanese media reports that Ohtani didn't want to go to a team that previously had a Japanese star, Divish sees Seattle as a strong contender.  Of course, in a situation with intense media scrutiny and teams keeping their Ohtani game-plan close to the vest, it's difficult to know what Ohtani will decide.

"Nobody really know with Ohtani what he really wants," Divish said. "Nobody truly knows what Shohei Ohtani is looking for other than Shohei."

What will the Mariners be looking for if they don't land  Ohtani this offseason? A center fielder, another starting pitcher, relievers. The Mariners need to bulk up to contend for a wild card spot.

But let's not look at that particular future. Let's, even as beleaguered Mariners fans, envision the best outcome. Opening Day 2018 with Shohei Ohtani.

"There's nobody with his skill set that advanced at that age to come along in a long time," Divish said.