John McGrath

Shohei Otani, Japan’s version of Babe Ruth, would look right at home in Seattle

AP

While clinging to wild card hopes estimated at about 20 percent, the Mariners remain fringe playoff candidates. Despite injuries and seesaw momentum swings, they’re doing their best to fill in the lull that precedes the start of the football season.

And yet, whatever happens in 2017 could pale to what might await in 2018.

The 2018 Mariners are candidates to become the world’s most interesting sports team. It’s a premise requiring money and marketing vision for a franchise that has plenty of both.

The key? Acquire the next Babe Ruth.

His name is Shohei Otani, a Japanese superstar who turns 23 next week. Comparisons to The Bambino sound preposterous, as it’s been almost a century since anybody in the big leagues has come close to duplicating what Ruth achieved with the 1918 Red Sox: Finishing 13-7, with a 2.22 ERA (and 18 complete games) as a pitcher, while hitting .300, with 11 home runs (and 16 triples), as an outfielder.

Otani was Japan’s version of Ruth last season, when he was selected to the Pacific League’s “Best Nine” team as both a a pitcher and DH.

The right-hander went 10-4, with a 1.86 ERA, on the mound. As a left-handed hitter, he batted .322, with 22 homers and 67 RBIs. Impressive numbers, to be sure, but the stats merely tell a piece of the story.

Otani not only threw the fastest pitch ever clocked in Japan (101 mph), he won the Home Run Derby at the All-Star game.

Ruthian feats, but the similarities between the gregarious slugger with a thirst for, well, you name it are restricted to dual-threat baseball skills. Off the field, Otani adheres to a spartan lifestyle low on drama and high on health.

By all accounts, he’s humble and polite. Material riches don’t drive him. What drives him is an ambition of displaying his versatility on an American baseball stage overseen by general managers not keen on allowing power pitchers to showcase another kind of power at the plate.

Which brings us to Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto, who seems to savor his reputation as an unorthodox sort liberated from conventional wisdom. If there’s an executive daring enough to give Otani consistent at-bats between starts, it’s Dipoto.

So that’s one hurdle cleared. Another is more problematic: If the Mariners are interested in acquiring Japan’s Babe Ruth, it will cost $20 some million to pry him from the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters.

That’s just the posting fee, before any contract is reached. Although the MLB’s new collective bargaining agreement limits bonus signings to a $5 million maximum for international free agents under 25, Otani will be expensive.

But outrageously expensive? Maybe not. He wants to pitch, and he wants to hit on those days he doesn’t start. An opportunity to make history – or, more precisely, replicate Ruthian history – is the issue. The financial jackpot, beefed up with endorsements, will take care of itself.

On the Mariners’ side, durability is a concern. An ankle injury, sustained late last season, rendered Otani day-to-day during spring training, and eight games into 2017, he strained a thigh muscle. He has yet to pitch this season.

So there’s that, the sobering reality the next Babe Ruth isn’t Superman.

But it’s worth a roll the dice, no?

The Mariners’ connection with Japan can’t be underestimated. Ownership changes have vastly reduced Nintendo’s stake in the club, but the tradition is firm: The first Japanese player to appear in an AL game was former Seattle pitcher Mac Suzuki, who made his big-league debut in 1996.

Suzuki’s career with the M’s came and went, without much fanfare, but closer Kazuhiro Sasaki got an invitation to the All-Star Game, as did starter Hisashi Iwakuma.

And then there is right fieler Ichiro Suzuki, a 10-time Mariners’ All-Star destined to become Japan’s first representative in the Hall of Fame.

Ichiro was regarded as something of an experiment in 2001, when manager Lou Piniella suspected the Mariners had acquired a one-dimensional, soft-shell slap hitter with no potential to pull the ball.

Seven months later, Ichiro was named as ALRookie of the Year, a prestigious honor topped only by the Most Valuable Player award. He won that, too.

The Mariners traded Ichiro to the Yankees in 2012, and put outfielder Nori Aoki on waivers last winter, leaving Iwakuma as the team’s only Japanese player. Don’t expect Iwakuma to return from the disabled list any time soon. If odometers could be applied to arms, his reads 200,000 miles.

Acquiring Shohei Otani would connect a succession of dots that began in 1996 and continued with Sasaki, Ichiro and Iwakuma. Since the Mariners signed Mac Suzuki 24 years ago, every MLB team has recognized the pipeline of talent from Japan.

But Otani? He’s one of a kind. A pitcher with lights-out stuff, a hitter with light-tower power. Imagine the next Babe Ruth, occupying the heart of the Mariners batting order on those days he isn’t throwing 101 mph.

Make it happen, Jerry. Make a player accumulate double-digit stats in pitching wins and home runs hit, 100 years after the last one did.

JAPANESE CONNECTION

The Seattle Mariners have had a history of Japanese players on the roster dating back to the mid-1990s. A closer look:

PLAYER, POSITION++YEARS

Mac Suzuki, pitcher++1996, 1998-99

Kazuhiro Sasaki, pitcher++2000-2003

Ichiro Suzuki, oufielder++2001-2012

Shigetoshi Hasegawa, pitcher++2002-2005

Masao Kida, pitcher++2004-2005

Kenji Johjima, catcher++2006-2009

Munernori Kawaski, infielder++2012

Hisashi Iwakuma, pitcher++2012-present

Nori Aoki, outfielder++2016

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