MLB.com Columnist

Jon Paul Morosi

Ohtani to make crucial start Thursday

Injuries have limited two-way Japanese star to 1 1/3 IP in 2017

Ohtani to make crucial start Thursday

The Sapporo Dome in Japan will be the center of the baseball world on Thursday, simply because of the home team's starting pitcher: Shohei Ohtani, the brilliant and at times enigmatic right-hander.

Ohtani's start that day for the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters will mark only his second pitching appearance in Nippon Professional Baseball this season. And his performance against the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks could have an outsized impact on if -- and where -- he will pitch in Major League Baseball next season.

If Ohtani wants to convince observers that he's ready to succeed in MLB, he'll have the right audience. At least 15 teams are expected to scout Thursday's game, one source told MLB.com; Newsday reported this week that Yankees general manager Brian Cashman was en route to Japan on a scouting trip to see Ohtani.

Ohtani, 23, has spoken of his interest in both hitting and pitching in the Major Leagues, and his offensive performance for the Fighters has affirmed the credibility of that notion. Even while hampered by ankle and thigh injuries, the left-handed-hitting Ohtani has posted a slash line of .342/.402/.548 in 42 games this season.

Ohtani was regarded as the best pitcher in Japan last year, but he allowed four earned runs over 1 1/3 innings in his lone start for the Fighters this season. Industry speculation surrounding Ohtani's fitness as a pitcher is making Thursday's outing even more crucial.

Even if Ohtani struggles in Thursday's start, MLB teams will be eager to sign him this offseason based on hitting ability alone -- especially given the cost certainty built into MLB's new Collective Bargaining Agreement.

Because Ohtani is not 25 years old with at least six years of service in a recognized foreign league, he'll be subject to international amateur spending limits if he moves from NPB to MLB this offseason. An MLB team would pay the Fighters a release fee -- likely the maximum of $20 million -- and then a signing bonus to Ohtani. The bonus must fit under a hard cap, typically less than $6 million per team, although it can increase through the acquisition of additional slot allocations.

The Yankees and Rangers are among Ohtani's most serious suitors, sources say; both teams have acquired additional international signing bonus money from other clubs in trades since July 1.

Jon Paul Morosi is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.