I would never be so brazen as to proclaim that I discovered Shohei Ohtani, nor even that I was the first person to wish him to the St. Louis Cardinals, but I would say I was pretty early on the beat. I’ve been pushing for the Cardinals to sign Shohei Ohtani for so long that the preferred Anglicization of his name was “Otani”. I’ve been pushing for the Cardinals to sign Shohei Ohtani since Barack Obama was president. I kept the receipts (I asked VEB site manager Heather Simon if I could just copy-and-paste my old article into this blog and re-post it; she, rightfully, did not respond).

In 2016, Shohei then-Otani was a subject of fascination, but he was still very much a prospect, excelling as a two-way player in Nippon Professional Baseball, very much intriguing as a potential star in North America, but such a unicorn in modern baseball that expecting superstardom seemed a bit optimistic. Six-and-a-half years later, Shohei Ohtani is the consensus best player in Major League Baseball. On the mound, by FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement, Ohtani was the sixth-best pitcher in the sport in 2022, and at the plate, the Los Angeles Angels designated hitter Ohtani tied for 15th in Major League Baseball by wRC+, one season after finishing fifth. In 2021, Ohtani was the best player in Major League Baseball, taking home the American League Most Valuable Player award despite his team’s underwhelming performance as a whole, and in 2022, he finished a respectable second to Aaron Judge’s historically potent season. MLB Network ranked the top 100 players in baseball last month and picked Ohtani at #1, and while one could make an argument for somebody else at #1, it’s hard to make an argument against Ohtani.

And in eight months, Shohei Ohtani is scheduled to become a free agent, where he will likely garner as much attention as any free agent in history.

As St. Louis Cardinals fans, we are conditioned to believe that signing the guy is not even a possibility worth entertaining recreationally. The Cardinals organization is moderate by nature, holding hands and chanting, “Better things aren’t possible!” And I suppose I should be clear and note that I don’t think the Cardinals are going to, by trade (which the Angels would be wise to do in July if they fall out of contention) or via free agency, acquire Shohei Ohtani. But I would also suggest it isn’t a zero percent chance. The odds of the Cardinals acquiring Shohei Ohtani aren’t as high as, say, their odds of acquiring Willson Contreras were entering this off-season, but I would say they are meaningfully higher than their odds of acquiring Aaron Judge, or Trea Turner, or Carlos Correa, or Justin Verlander, or one of the big-ticket free agents of 2022-23. Shohei Ohtani makes sense for the Cardinals, and the Cardinals make sense for Shohei Ohtani.

#1–He is a perfect roster fit: The St. Louis Cardinals’ starting rotation is arguably already a bit thin, and it’s about to become even thinner following the 2023 season: Adam Wainwright is retiring and Jack Flaherty, Miles Mikolas, and Jordan Montgomery are pending free agents. The Cardinals have some internal options–Steven Matz will remain under contract and youngsters Matthew Liberatore and Zack Thompson will be given opportunities to emerge, but they could really use an ace. Shohei Ohtani certainly qualifies.

On the designated hitter end of Ohtani, the Cardinals already have a hole–not a massive hole, necessarily, but both of the incumbent designated hitters of 2022, Corey Dickerson and Albert Pujols, are no longer with the Cardinals, and the slot in 2023 figures to be a bit more of a hodgepodge–a spare outfielder, Jordan Walker, or Juan Yepez here are there. But with the possible exception of Alec Burleson, the most likely options for a non-rotational DH are all right-handed batters, whereas Shohei Ohtani is a lefty. In a lineup dominated by righties–Lars Nootbaar figures to be the only regular lefty, while Tommy Edman and Dylan Carlson (whose struggles against right-handed pitching are well-established) are switch-hitters. I’m not necessarily a huge believer that lineup balance is critical, but I’m not going to say no to a big lefty thumper in the heart of the order. Ohtani would qualify.

#2–If he wants to play for a winner, he could do a lot worse than St. Louis: When Shohei Ohtani signed with the Los Angeles Angels, the club’s willingness to let Shohei be Shohei was a major factor–they were in the American League at a time when only the American League had the designated hitter, and they expressed a unique willingness to let Shohei Ohtani be a truly full-time two-way player. I am thankful that they were willing to be the fun team, and at this point I’m sure Ohtani is thankful too. But he isn’t going to have to convince teams to let him do this anymore–the cat is firmly out of the bag. Any team willing to pony up for Shohei Ohtani wants both the pitcher and the hitter.

So now Ohtani can prioritize other things, like team success. For all of Ohtani’s greatness, and despite being teammates with fellow consensus (conservatively) top five MLB player Mike Trout, Shohei Ohtani has never played in a playoff game. And while the Cardinals are hardly the winning team in baseball, they are certainly up there–there are a half-dozen teams in baseball that have made consecutive postseasons (all have made four or more), and the Cardinals are one of them. That the Cardinals aren’t dynastic could play into their favor–perhaps Ohtani doesn’t want to steal the valor of signing with the Houston Astros, the Atlanta Braves, or the Los Angeles Dodgers (although he perhaps would enjoy not having to move, would Ohtani want to sign with a rival of the Angels?). That would leave the Cardinals and the Tampa Bay Rays, and if you think the Cardinals would be resistant to spending the money necessary to acquire a player of Ohtani’s caliber, then hooooo boy do I have some things to tell you about the Tampa Bay Rays manner of doing business. As for the New York Yankees, despite how much they’re devoting to Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton, I would imagine they will offer a pretty penny for Ohtani. But would the guy who voluntarily signed to play in the LA suburbs want to sign up for the most chaotic media situation in the sport?

#3–His low-key personality would be a great fit in St. Louis: There is a certain tendency among American big-city media to assume that players must want to play in a big city. I think a lot about the persistent rumors that Milwaukee Bucks superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo would bolt to the Los Angeles Lakers or New York Knicks the first chance he got, but instead he remained in Milwaukee and seems to genuinely love being there. Some people love the bright lights of Broadway; some people just wanna pick up chicken nuggets in the Chick-fil-A or Culver’s drive-thru. Neither lifestyle is inherently right or wrong, but these differences are real.

That Shohei Ohtani signed with a team in metro Los Angeles might suggest a big-city dreamer, but Anaheim is definitively not Hollywood. This isn’t an insult–it is what it is. It fits Ohtani well–while he is obviously an explosive player and seems to be quite well-liked by teammates, he is also a quiet and reserved type. His friendly but serious nature reminds me a bit of Albert Pujols. There are also plenty of parallels to the existing superstar structure in St. Louis, with Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado maintaining a quiet star template and demonstrating that one is not required to be particularly outgoing in St. Louis.

The inspiration for this post, unsurprisingly, is the friendship that seems to be developing in the World Baseball Classic between Ohtani and Lars Nootbaar on Team Japan. Earlier today, Ohtani was seen joking with Tommy Edman at second base during Japan’s game against South Korea. I’m not saying Shohei Ohtani would sign with a team because he had made friends with a couple guys on it, but I can’t imagine this would hurt in terms of making him feel comfortable with a new situation.

#4–…but he would still be a GOD: There would be a danger to Shohei Ohtani signing with the Yankees, Mets, or even the Dodgers and fans turning on him if he does not produce immediately. But Shohei Ohtani would immediately and forcefully be an absolute king of St. Louis baseball. This isn’t some trite “best fans in baseball” thing–Ohtani would also get the superhero treatment in all but a handful of truly deranged baseball markets. While Shohei Ohtani probably doesn’t want to be the center of the universe, I bet he’d enjoy being well-liked.

There is admittedly not a ton of precedent for Japanese players in St. Louis, a city and a metropolitan area which is about a sixth as Asian as Greater Los Angeles, but what precedent does exist suggests that Shohei Ohtani would be a popular figure in St. Louis. Admittedly, I’m a white guy typing this, so take this with a grain of salt and for the love of God listen to actual St. Louisans of Asian heritage before you listen to me, but the lone St. Louis Cardinal ever from Japan, So Taguchi, was beloved among the fan base, arguably far beyond what his quality of play merited. More recent players from Asia, South Korea’s Seunghwan Oh and Kwang Hyun Kim, also proved to be quite well-liked by the fans. And while all three of these players had their moments as Cardinals, none of them are close to the caliber of player that Shohei Ohtani is.

#5–He doesn’t care THAT much about money, but the Cardinals should still provide it: Most star players from Japan have come to Major League Baseball via the posting system. For instance, the Texas Rangers spent $51.7 million in 2011 for the right to sign Yu Darvish to a $60 million contract. But if Ohtani were to go this route, he would have had to wait until he was 25, after the 2019 season. But instead, Ohtani signed with the Angels knowing that his signing bonus would be capped at a hair over $3.5 million and that he would functionally be treated as a MLB rookie, with three years of team-determined salaries plus three years of salary arbitration.

This quest may ultimately pay off for Ohtani financially, as it will expedite a super-major payday (while he would have signed for far more than $3.5 million after 2019, it probably wouldn’t touch what he will make later this year), but in the moment, it demonstrated that Shohei Ohtani is motivated by factors other than money–he knew that Major League Baseball was the premier league in the world for baseball, and he wanted to be a part of it. And now he has an opportunity to improve his fortunes within that league.

That said, Shohei Ohtani isn’t going to sign with a team for the league minimum again. He may not try to squeeze every penny out of a signing team, though this is his right, but Ohtani would be right to expect an earnest payday. And the Cardinals have as much to gain from signing Shohei Ohtani as anybody. It is up to the organization to act that way.

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