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Where EAST meets the Northwest

Shohei Ohtani. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

Ichiro Suzuki. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

BASEBALL BARGAINS. Shohei Ohtani of the Los Angeles Angels and Ichiro Suzuki of the Seattle Mariners participate in Major League Baseball (MLB) games on opening day in Oakland and Seattle, respectively, on March 29, 2018. Both athletes played on teams in Japanís Nippon Professional Baseball before moving to MLB.

From The Asian Reporter, V28, #7 (April 2, 2018), page 13.

The newest and oldest Japanese MLB players are both bargains

By Mike Street

Special to The Asian Reporter

Compensation has been one of the main challenges surrounding players who move from Japanís Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) to Major League Baseball (MLB). For every successful pitcher like Hiroki Kuroda or Koji Uehara, thereís a high-flying pitching bust like Daisuke Matsuzaka or Hideki Irabu. And while there have been plenty of pitching successes, very few NPB hitters at any price have succeeded in MLB.

This season, one NPB player who is outstanding at both pitching and hitting will try to become the next Babe Ruth, while another former NPB player will return to the team where he first made his mark in MLB. And both have proven to be bargains.

In the modern game, baseball is divided into pitchers and hitters, and players almost never do both well. The cringe-inducing sight of a pitcher flailing ineffectively at the plate has become so commonplace that teams in both MLBís American League and NPBís Pacific League use a designated hitter to hit for the pitcher.

The last player to be a top-ranked pitcher and hitter was Babe Ruth. More than a hundred years ago, he began his career as a lights-out lefty for the Boston Red Sox. After he led the league in home runs for two straight seasons, Boston traded him to the New York Yankees, who took him off the mound and put him in the field, where he made history by crushing 665 of his 714 career home runs.

We may see Ruthís equal in Shohei Ohtani, a 23-year-old who had spent his professional career so far with the NPB Nippon Ham Fighters. In five seasons, the flame-throwing righty notched a 42-15 record with a 2.52 ERA (Earned Run Average) and a 1.08 WHIP (Walks & Hits per Innings Pitched). He also struck out more than a batter per inning with a pitching repertoire that includes a 100-mile-per-hour fastball complemented by a devastating slider and splitter.

Any MLB team would be interested in a player like that ó especially one who is so young ó but Ohtani is a force at the plate too. Hitting lefty, Ohtani collected 48 home runs and 70 doubles along with a .286 average in 1,170 plate appearances. When Ohtani wasnít pitching, Nippon put Ohtani in the outfield or at designated hitter to keep his dangerous bat in the lineup.

This combination of skills makes Ohtani an anomaly on either side of the Pacific. Since the 1960s, there has never been a pitcher who regularly played in the field or at designated hitter. So when the Ham Fighters agreed to post him for MLB teams to sign, Ohtani became one of the most-coveted free agents on the market.

Incredibly, however, Ohtaniís youth hindered his contract, thanks to MLBís collective-bargaining agreement. This agreement restricts players under age 25 to the league-minimum salary, while also capping the signing bonuses available to international players. As a result, the Los Angeles Angels signed Ohtani to a two-year contract in December worth around $4 million.

Thatís chump change compared to what other NPB pitchers have been paid in MLB. Daisuke Matsuzaka signed a six-year contract for more than $52 million with the Boston Red Sox in 2007, and Masahiro Tanaka signed a six-year, $114-million contract with the Yankees in 2014. And neither possessed Ohtaniís prodigious hitting skills.

Even the two other less-heralded NPB pitchers who signed with MLB teams this season are making as much as, or more, than Ohtani. Relievers Yoshihisa Hirano and Kazuhisa Makita each signed two-year deals worth $6 million and $3.8 million with the Arizona Diamondbacks and the San Diego Padres, respectively.

Claiming to be uninterested in money, Ohtani said he signed with the Angels because he "just felt something click." But when his deal expires and he becomes eligible for a bigger contract, Ohtaniís pay should be more in line with his value ó assuming he meets expectations in MLB.

Arguably, Ohtani might never have gotten the chance to sign any MLB contract if it hadnít been for Ichiro Suzuki, the first NPB position player to come to MLB. Since he arrived in Seattle in 2001, Ichiroís accomplishments have been too numerous to mention, but they include winning Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player in the same season, breaking George Sislerís "unbreakable" 84-year-old record for the most hits in a season, and collecting his 3,000th hit at age 42.

When he first arrived in the league, however, Ichiro was also undervalued. Because he was the first NPB hitter in MLB, many doubted whether he could hit MLB pitching. So his first Mariners contract was worth around $4 million per year, at a time when the average MLB salary was about $2.2 million, and the highest-paid player, Alex Rodriguez, made $22 million.

Even after Ichiro had proven himself, his salary remained relatively modest. His three-year deal in 2004 was worth about $11 million annually, and his five-year contract in 2008 earned him about $18 million annually. The league-average contract in both years was around $3 million, and Rodriguez remained the best-paid player both seasons, earning about $22 million in 2004 and $28 million in 2008.

While Ichiro might not have deserved to be the best-paid player, he certainly earned less than he might have if heíd sold his talent to the highest bidder, as Rodriguez had. Ichiro was a bargain for the Mariners because he valued loyalty over money, just as Ohtani and other Japanese MLB players have chosen teams that made them feel comfortable over teams that may have paid them more.

In his latest one-year deal, Ichiro is making just $750,000, with performance incentives that could double the contractís value. While that may seem like a paltry sum, Ichiro is 44 years old and well past his prime. He hit just .255 last season on 215 plate appearances in 136 games, 22 as a starter. Those are all career lows, except for his batting average, which is second only to his .229 in 2015, his first season in the National League.

This year, back in the American League and familiar Safeco Field, Ichiro might rebound slightly from last yearís performance, but his days are numbered. Regardless, he remains as a reminder to Ohtani that itís possible for NPB players to exceed expectations and become one of the best-performing, if not best-paid, players in the game.

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