A year ago at this time, the Dodgers’ offseason priorities were clear. Three key players had become free agents and the potential changes to the core of the team’s roster were unknown and significant.
When Kenley Jansen, Justin Turner and Rich Hill all re-signed with the Dodgers, crucial pieces were back in place that would lead to this season’s 104 wins and the franchise’s first trip to the World Series since 1988.
This winter’s challenge is more ambiguous.
The core of the team is very much in place – and even most of the complementary pieces as well. The six Dodgers who became free agents with last week’s conclusion of the World Series include just two — relievers Brandon Morrow and Tony Watson– who have any real utility to the 2018 version of the team.
“We’re fortunate to be in a position where a lot of the team is going to be coming back,” Dodgers GM Farhan Zaidi said Tuesday at Dodger Stadium. “Every offseason, you kind of take a look at your roster and find potential target areas. As we look at our roster, we don’t feel like we have any glaring needs. We’re going to continue to be opportunistic, like we always are, for ways to improve the roster.”
This winter’s biggest opportunity might be Shohei Otani, baseball’s international man of mystery this offseason.
The 23-year-old star who has been both the best pitcher in the Japanese professional league and one of its top hitters over the past few years has declared his intention to make the jump to Major League Baseball for 2018. Otani hired CAA (Creative Artists Agency) this week to represent him in any negotiations with an MLB team.
CAA has represented Japanese players Nori Aoki and Junichi Tazawa as well as longtime Dodgers outfielder Andre Ethier.
The Dodgers have scouted Otani extensively and even attempted to sign him out of high school five years ago. More recently, Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman, director of player personnel Galen Carr and former Dodgers pitcher Orel Hershiser were part of a contingent that traveled to Japan in August to watch Otani play for the Nippon Ham Fighters.
“Obviously it’s a situation we’re monitoring closely,” Friedman said Tuesday. “But it’s premature to talk about it right now, being that the formal process has not started. But it’s obviously something we’re monitoring.”
That formal process is just one of the unknowns surrounding Otani.
The system that allowed Japanese teams to post players to MLB (and receive up to $20 million as a transfer fee from the winning bidder) has expired. A new deal is likely to be negotiated in the next month, but there is some belief that Otani will be given an exemption to change leagues under the old system.
Otani’s status as a two-way player makes him a unique case, regardless. American League teams would seem to have an advantage in courting Otani because they would be able to use him as both a pitcher and DH.
But Friedman left the Dodgers’ National League door open nonetheless.
“We definitely think that it’s doable for someone who’s talented enough to do both,” he said of accommodating a two-way player on an NL roster. “It takes being a little creative and trying to figure out the schedule and figure out recovery days. But we definitely think it’s doable and if we were ever to sign a player who’s talented enough to do both we’d look forward to the challenge of being creative to figure that out.”
Thanks to a roster loaded with multi-position players, the Dodgers could be uniquely able to accommodate a two-way player of Otani’s skill set. And the Dodgers have already demonstrated an ability to juggle a deep (and often revolving) stable of starting pitchers.
But the Dodgers will have to be creative just to sign Otani.
As a player under age 25, Otani is classified as an international amateur by MLB. That limits the size of the bonus teams can offer him – and the Dodgers are operating under even more severe restrictions. Having exceeded their bonus limit in a previous international signing period, the Dodgers can offer a bonus of no more than $300,000 to any signee during this period.
But the Dodgers’ front office under Friedman has shown no shortage of creativity or willingness to stretch the envelope of MLB’s rules in search of an advantage. As an example, the team signed another Japanese right-hander, Kenta Maeda, to an eight-year contract two years ago that included enough bonuses and clauses to pay him anywhere from $25 million to $106 million.