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Looking back at Giants' fierce pursuit of Ohtani in 2017

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At some point Sunday afternoon, Gabe Kapler stopped thinking about a series win over the Dodgers and shifted his attention to the challenge ahead, including how Giants pitchers might try to get Shohei Ohtani out when he stepped into the batter's box at Oracle Park. But Kapler wasn't the first Giants manager in recent years to focus on Ohtani after a series against the Dodgers. 

Late in the 2017 season, as the Giants were headed for 98 losses and the Dodgers were celebrating another division title, Bruce Bochy pulled up some Ohtani clips on a laptop at Dodger Stadium and spent time studying the two-way star, who back then was preparing to explore his MLB options.

The Giants were all-in on their pursuit even before that season ended. General manager Bobby Evans and assistant GM Jeremy Shelley flew to Japan that September to watch Ohtani play for the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters, and the Giants put together a comprehensive pitch to try and lure Ohtani to San Francisco. They viewed him as an outfielder and pitcher, and a surefire superstar in their market. 

Ohtani finally played in front of fans at Oracle Park on Monday, but he came in with the Angels, his choice on Dec. 8, 2017 after a rumor-filled week that included a series of meetings with finalists in Los Angeles. 

Ohtani didn't start Monday, but the crowd came to life in the ninth when he stepped into the on-deck circle with one out and his team trailing 6-1. He received a huge ovation when he was announced and smiled as he said hello to Buster Posey, who helped recruit him four years ago. Giants right-hander Nick Tropeano heard boos when he went to 3-0 on Ohtani, and again when he walked him.

 

It had to be bittersweet for some current and former team officials to watch Ohtani get that reception in another uniform, but there is a silver lining here. Ohtani narrowed his choice to seven finalists in 2017, all of whom were invited to meet with him and his representatives. The list included the Dodgers and Padres, so while Ohtani didn't become a Giant, at least they don't have to worry about facing him 19 times a year. 

The hope back in 2017, though, was that Ohtani would change the makeup of the division by choosing to play with a core that had won three World Series titles but appeared to be quickly running out of steam. The Giants put a lot of work in on their pitch, one Evans recently said was "a true team effort" within the baseball operations department.

"We made every attempt," he said last week via text.

The Giants met with Ohtani four days before he chose the Angels, taking a large group that included Posey. Their pitch went beyond the baseball operations department, Bochy and Posey, though. Other players were involved in trying to show off what the Giants could offer, as well as members of ownership, the organization's community relations department, and even the San Francisco mayor's office.

The Giants made it clear to Ohtani that he would be given a chance to pitch and be a regular hitter, with Bochy envisioning him getting 300-400 at-bats as an outfielder on days he wasn't on the mound. People who were in that meeting recall Ohtani being a bit reticent about playing so much outfield, though, and the Giants left feeling Ohtani was committed to being in the American League where he could DH, and also to being in the Los Angeles market. 

"In the end, he felt a strong connection with the Angels and believes they can best help him reach his goals in Major League Baseball," his agent, Nez Balelo, said right after the decision.

Ohtani was right about that part, although it has taken some time. He ended up needing Tommy John surgery, but this season Angels manager Joe Maddon has set him free, and the results have been historic. Playing regularly as a DH, Ohtani has a .927 OPS in 50 games and is third in the American League with 15 homers. The Angels do not start Ohtani on the mound every five days, but in his seven appearances, he has been just as dominant. He has a 2.72 ERA in 36 1/3 innings, and while walks have been an issue, he has struck out 50 batters and allowed just 19 hits. Ohtani averages 96 mph with his fastball and has a splitter that has held opposing hitters to a .043 average. 

 

Watching Ohtani this season brings up a fascinating "what if" scenario for the Giants. They chased Ohtani and Giancarlo Stanton hard for a few weeks in 2017, but ultimately fell short and ended up trading for Andrew McCutchen and Evan Longoria. It's possible that most of the front office and staff changes would not have happened had the Giants convinced Ohtani to come to San Francisco, but ultimately they were a good fit in the wrong league. Interestingly, the current brain trust all joined that chase with other organizations. 

Farhan Zaidi's Dodgers and Scott Harris' Cubs were both listed among the seven finalists for Ohtani in 2017. Manager Gabe Kapler had just been hired by the Phillies, but he said he did "quite a bit" of background work on Ohtani after getting that job. Kapler looked at him as an offensive player and "a force on the mound." 

"Without question, he's one of the more talented players in baseball, one of the more dynamic players in baseball, and he obviously does something that nobody else can do," Kapler said Monday. 

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Kapler said that, from afar, it seems that Ohtani is someone who brings a "lot of positive energy and attention" to the Angels, saying he was fun to watch not just as a manager, but as a baseball fan. Kapler didn't inherit a Giants roster with Ohtani on it, but he has thought about how he would manage such a talent, and it's probably pretty similar to how the Angels have done it this year. 

"I think one of the things that the Angels have done really well is they've been very disciplined to not overwork Ohtani," he said. "I have a lot of respect for that, knowing how difficult it is even on a smaller scale with somebody like Buster Posey or some of our veteran players to get them the rest that they need. I think the Angels have done a great job of that."

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