May 20, 2024

The Dodgers’ first significant offseason acquisition was announced on Halloween morning last week, hours before Game 4 of the World Series. It didn’t draw attention around the industry. It didn’t include a player or a member of the coaching staff. But it was an indication of the Dodgers’ plans.

Lorenzo Sciarrino was rejoining the organization as senior vice president for global partnerships. Sciarrino, who previously spent 12 years with the Dodgers, was hired away from WME Sports to head the franchise’s “global sponsorship department, supervising and engineering franchise partnerships with businesses domestically and internationally.”

It is not a coincidence the Dodgers made this move two days before Shohei Ohtani officially became a free agent and before Yoshinobu Yamamoto posts to join a Major League Baseball team in the coming weeks.

The Dodgers are considered a favorite to acquire at least one of those players this offseason. Hiring Sciarrino signals the Dodgers’ plan to maximize revenue — for the organization and player — if they sign one. But Ohtani and Yamamoto aren’t the only Japanese stars on the team’s radar.

The Dodgers devoted considerable time to scouting pitching sensation Roki Sasaki this year, hopeful at one point the right-hander would be posted this winter, according to people with knowledge of the situation but not authorized to speak publicly. Sasaki, however, is not expected to be available for MLB clubs this offseason.

Sasaki’s looming jump to the United States could have implications on the Dodgers’ choices this winter. It could, for example, discourage them from committing to a top-tier starting pitcher other than Ohtani in free agency.

There’s also an understanding that Japanese stars often prefer not to play on the same major league clubs as other Japanese stars. Ultimately, would signing Ohtani or Yamamoto prevent a pursuit of Sasaki? The answer is unclear.

Sasaki, who turned 22 on Friday, is already considered one of the best pitchers in the world.

He began the year by displaying elite stuff for Japan in the World Baseball Classic. In July, his fastball reached 103 mph. He sat out two months of the Nippon Professional Baseball season because of an oblique injury, but he finished with a 1.78 ERA and 135 strikeouts to 17 walks across 91 innings for Chiba Lotte. His 6-foot-4 frame is a prototype for long-term success.

Shohei Ohtani of the Angels pitches against the Pittsburgh Pirates on July 21, 2023, in Anaheim.

Shohei Ohtani, pitching against the Pittsburgh Pirates on July 21, could receive only a maximum signing bonus of $3.5 million when he joined the Angels.

(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

In addition to the Dodgers, the San Diego Padres and San Francisco Giants are among the teams that have intensely scouted Sasaki, according to a person with knowledge of the situation not authorized to speak publicly. His eventual move to the majors is expected to produce a bidding war. The question is when.

MLB posting system rules stipulate that foreign-born players must wait until they are 25 years old and have played in a foreign professional league six seasons to reach unrestricted free agency. In Sasaki’s case, he would have to wait until after the 2026 season to avoid being designated an international amateur and being limited to a standard minor league contract.

If not for the limitations, Sasaki probably would attract a contract worth more than $200 million. Ohtani also would have received that kind of payday had he chosen to wait for unrestricted free agency. But the two-way superstar opted to leave NPB at 23 years old after the 2017 season. Ohtani had the option to leave for the majors whenever he wanted included in his contract with Nippon Ham. Sasaki is thought to also have that clause in his deal with Chiba Lotte.

Because he left early, Ohtani was limited to a maximum signing bonus of $3.5 million. He couldn’t earn more than the league minimum salary over his first three seasons. The Angels ended up giving him a $2.315-million signing bonus. He won the 2021 American League MVP award on a $3-million salary.

But a player’s earning potential isn’t confined to his salary. Ohtani made millions of dollars through endorsements — in the United States and Japan — in his time with the Angels. Though Sasaki and Yamamoto aren’t nearly on his level of fame, both pitchers would draw off-the-field opportunities for themselves and their teams. Sasaki could decide that money would be enough. If not this winter, then maybe the next one.

In the Dodgers’ case, that’s where Sciarrano figures to help. The Dodgers want a Japanese star. They have options and, seemingly, a plan.

Times staff writer Dylan Hernández contributed to this story.

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