The case for the Rays’ pursuit of this winter’s top free agent

This Nov. 11, 2016, file photo shows Team Japan, from left, manager Hiroki Kokubo, infielder Tetsuto Yamada, infielder Ryosuke Kikuchi and designated hitter Shohei Ohtani and infielder Sho Nakata standing during a ceremony prior to their international exhibition series baseball game against Mexico at Tokyo Dome in Tokyo. A person familiar with the agreement tells The Associated Press that Major League Baseball, its Japanese counterpart and the American players' union agreed Tuesday, Nov. 21, 2017,  to a new posting system that could allow Japanese star pitcher-outfielder Shohei Ohtani to be put up for bid next week.  (AP Photo/Koji Sasahara, File)
This Nov. 11, 2016, file photo shows Team Japan, from left, manager Hiroki Kokubo, infielder Tetsuto Yamada, infielder Ryosuke Kikuchi and designated hitter Shohei Ohtani and infielder Sho Nakata standing during a ceremony prior to their international exhibition series baseball game against Mexico at Tokyo Dome in Tokyo. A person familiar with the agreement tells The Associated Press that Major League Baseball, its Japanese counterpart and the American players' union agreed Tuesday, Nov. 21, 2017, to a new posting system that could allow Japanese star pitcher-outfielder Shohei Ohtani to be put up for bid next week. (AP Photo/Koji Sasahara, File)
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Typically in any majors-wide competition the Rays are playing from behind. And as the courtship of Japanese two-way sensation Shohei Ohtani unfolds over the next few weeks in unusual and unprecedented fashion, they are operating with several distinct disadvantages.

Even with the benefit of bidding beyond the $20-million cover charge capped via international signing bonus pool limits, the Rays can’t offer the most money. They don’t have much of a history with prominent Japanese players to point to. They can’t tout a large Japanese base in the community to help with assimilation. And as nice as their spring facility looks in pictures, at some point they have to tell Ohtani it’s still in Port Charlotte.

But the Rays have one significant advantage that none of the other 29 teams have, and that could make a huge difference in the franchise-altering decision Ohtani has to make by Christmas:

A real, live two-way player of their own in 2017 top draft pick Brendan McKay.

Much of the narrative preceding Ohtani to market as the winter’s top free agent has been about his fervent desire to get to continue pitching and hitting. More than financial terms, the deciding factor could be his trust in a team’s sincerity in allowing him to do so.

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To show that, the Rays just have to introduce him to McKay, which they may do if the opportunity presents for a phone call, web chat or visit during the 21-day bidding window that opened Friday.

With Ohtani’s future a major daily story in Japan, the Rays’ handling of McKay during his first pro season at short-season Class A Hudson Valley is a popular subject among reporters.

While declining to comment directly on their interest in Ohtani, Rays officials’ have made clear their willingness to be open-minded, patient and committed in handling such special players.

"We’re hopeful (McKay) can do it," Rays GM Erik Neander said. "We want to give him the opportunity to do it because he’s shown he deserves that opportunity and we don’t want to take that away from him prematurely.

"We’re going to continue to work together and learn together. Ideally he continues to do it all the way up to the major leagues and has an incredible impact on our organization."

That framing of the partnership is something the Rays will push to Ohtani.

They can detail how they worked with McKay in developing an accommodating schedule — playing first four days a week and pitching once, DH-ing the game after, resting the day he threw his long bullpen session. And how they are already plotting his 2018 step up to full-season April-September play at Class A Bowling Green or Charlotte.

In short, showing Ohtani they want to team up to do whatever possible to make him a successful two-way player in the majors, seeing him as a huge asset that way, not a novelty or an experiment he has to prove won’t fail.

Figure the Rays to also set themselves apart by pushing their pure intent and absence of external pressures of a big-market, win-now environment that could accelerate a pitch or hit choice. A relaxed Tampa Bay area lifestyle, playing to Ohtani’s small-town background and shy personality, can help.

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And if they’re clever, they’ll at least suggest other teams are less committed, merely placating Ohtani with what he wants to hear, biding time until saying they want to convert him to just pitching or outfielding, whatever he does better in the more challenging major leagues, to help them win more then.

In general, Neander said, the Rays espouse "a philosophy where we certainly demonstrate an open-mindedness to letting players find their limits, and for us to not artificially limit them in any way."

Another part of the preamble that could benefit the Rays is that Ohtani, 23, is not driven by top dollar, evidenced by his reportedly simple lifestyle playing in Japan (living in the team dorm, no driver’s license or outside interests, parents managing his $2.4-million salary) and decision to come to the majors now rather than waiting two years to be an unrestricted free agent, when he could sign for perhaps $200 million.

Under this system, Ohtani will get much less, at least initially, to apply his dazzling Babe-Ruth-with-speed skills, throwing balls as fast as 102.5 mph and hitting them 500-plus feet.

Ohtani’s Nippon Ham Fighters team gets the $20-million posting fee while he signs a minor-league deal for a bonus on a minor-league contract based on what teams have left in their pool (the Rangers have the most at $3.35 million, the Rays $440,500, 17 teams $300,000 or less, though additional dollars still can be acquired in trade, as the Angels did Thursday). His big-league salary will be only the $545,000 minimum in 2018, and just slightly more in his next two pre-arbitration eligible seasons, with MLB supposedly very vigilant about teams striking pre-arranged extensions for big bucks.

(RELATED: Rays deal Boxberger to Arizona for minor-league pitcher.)

But this is not all not about the money either. Ohtani is likely to make millions through endorsements and sponsorships in the States and Japan, and his hiring of the powerful CAA agency means it won’t be a simple negotiation, evidenced by last week’s request to teams for written explanations of their plans.

The Yankees, Dodgers, Rangers and Mariners are considered among the favorites, with the Cubs said to be very determined.

The Rays, at best, are in the longshot category. But they have that one unique advantage in McKay as they make their pitch and take their swing.

Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected] Follow @TBTimes_Rays.

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