NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The mere mention of Shohei Ohtani’s name made Pete Putila clam up.
“Uh, we’re not going to comment on any free agent players,” Farhan Zaidi’s top lieutenant said Tuesday, responding to a reporter’s direct questioning of the San Francisco Giants’ reported meeting with the two-way superstar over the weekend at Oracle Park.
It was a different tact than that of Dodgers manager Dave Roberts, but otherwise fell in line with the general consensus among executives here at the Gaylord Opryland Resort, the site of MLB’s Winter Meetings. The first rule of pursuing Shohei Ohtani, apparently, is to not talk about Shohei Ohtani.
Roberts confirmed that the Dodgers had hosted Ohtani for “two to three hours,” calling him their “top priority.” Hours later, general manager Brandon Gomes hung him out to dry, telling reporters, “Dave made a comment” and otherwise declining to discuss the two-time MVP, who has reportedly entered the final stages of his free agency.
Giants brass, however, have had no problem discussing their interest in other free agents, particularly two other highly regarded imports from Pacific Rim countries.
Jung-Hoo Lee, the Korean outfielder posted Tuesday, and Orix Buffaloes ace Yoshinobu Yamamoto are both high on the Giants’ wish list with team officials confirming intercontinental trips to watch both in person. Earlier this offseason, Zaidi acknowledged his visit to Japan to see Yamamoto, while Putila on Tuesday confirmed that the tall man in a white shirt spotted at Lee’s farewell game was indeed the Giants’ 6-foot-5 general manager.
“It was a great trip,” Putila said. “Just to experience the game over there, the excitement, the energy is off the charts. It was a really good experience.”
A center fielder, Lee, 25, has won five Golden Gloves, awarded annually to the top player at his position, while batting .340/.407/.491 with 65 home runs and 69 stolen bases over seven seasons in Korea. MLB Trade Rumors projects him to receive a five-year contract worth $50 million.
However, Lee missed a large portion of the season with an ankle injury and only returned for the Heroes’ final game, giving Putila a tight window to see him in person. It was a productive trip, nonetheless, Putila said.
“He got off six or seven swings in one at-bat, so it was great to see him take those swings,” Putila said. “I got to see him take fly balls pregame a few different days.”
The injury “makes it a little more challenging” to evaluate Lee, Putila said, but his extensive track record reduces some of the risk.
The bigger concern is how Lee will adjust to major-league pitching. The KBO is generally regarded as a step down from Japan’s Pacific League, and only one position player, the Padres’ Ha-Seong Kim, has established himself as a major-league regular since coming stateside.
“It’s definitely a challenge, but we have a lot of different scouts and people that are always evaluating the connection between the two (leagues), how guys may struggle in different ways, what adjustments they need to make,” Putila said. “It’s definitely a jump, but it’s one that we think some players can make.”
Meanwhile, manager Bob Melvin also didn’t bite on any Ohtani inquiries. But asked about Yamamoto, he happily provided a scouting report.
“Look, it’s really good,” Melvin said of the three-time Sawamura Award winner. “You watch the video and you can see why he has, puts up the numbers that he does. It looks like he’s quite the competitor too. The split, swing and miss, the heaters, upper 90s, curveball, slow you down, speed you up, he’s 25 years old.”
Like Ohtani, Yamamoto isn’t expected to sign until after the Winter Meetings. He and Lee both face a Jan. 4 deadline to pick a team.
Faced with the rare opportunity to add a 25-year-old ace, teams are also expected to bid a gargantuan sum on the diminutive but dominant right-hander. With a 1.44 ERA and 580 strikeouts to 110 walks over the past three seasons, Yamamoto’s figure is reportedly well north of $200 million and may start with a three by the time he signs.
“There are a lot of teams that are going to be in on him,” Melvin said. “He’s one of those guys at the top of the market here, and probably until some of these guys sign, there’s probably not going to be a lot of movement. He’s one of the top guys in the marketplace, and whoever gets him’s going to be lucky to have him.”