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Commentary: Are the Mariners ruining any chance to sign Shohei Ohtani?

Shohei Ohtani of the Los Angeles Angels bats against the Houston Astros at Minute Maid Park on Sunday in Houston.  (Tribune News Service)
By Matt Calkins Seattle Times

SEATTLE – Texas is on pace to win 106 games. Houston is on pace to win 97. But if you’re part of the struggling Mariners’ front office, you might be equally concerned with a situation in Anaheim right now – a situation spelled O-H-T-A-N-I.

You know it’s on the minds of Seattle baseball fans as the M’s are grinding through this sub-.500 season. The best baseball player in the world – Angels pitcher/slugger Shohei Ohtani – is set to hit free agency next season, when upward of $600 million could await.

Nobody can know the Japanese phenom’s true thoughts except Shohei himself. But before the season began, oddsmakers had the Mariners as his fourth-most likely destination at 6-1 behind the Dodgers (3-1), the Giants (4-1) and Angels (5-1).

The thinking is that he likes the West Coast, where a trip back to his home country is much easier than it would be from, say, Boston or New York. And it’s reasonable to think that the impact his compatriot Ichiro has had on the franchise might influence his decision to move to the Emerald City.

But what Ohtani really wants to do is win – something the Angels have been notoriously inept at over the past several seasons despite also having three-time American League MVP Mike Trout. Which is why the 90-win, playoff-drought-snapping, wild card-winning Mariners of last year might have been particularly appealing for Ohtani.

But this version? Likely nowhere near as shiny for the generational talent. Not if this mediocrity continues.

A couple of months ago, you would have looked at the Mariners and figured they would at least match last year’s pace. Remember, they went 61-33 over the last 94 games of the season before sweeping the Blue Jays in the wild-card round and playing tight with the Astros in the ALDS – even if the 3-0 sweep suggested otherwise.

That was a team brimming with potential behind the likes of AL Rookie of the Year Julio Rodriguez and a deep, healthy pitching core. It was a team whose season looked like a prelude, not a peak, with incessant returns to the playoffs pending.

Maybe that’s still the case. But now the Mariners are 29-30 overall, 22-30 against teams that aren’t the Oakland Athletics, and are tied for 24th in MLB with a team OPS of .683. Their OPS ranked 13th in MLB last year.

Yes, the pitching has been on the upper echelon, though perhaps not as spectacular as their starting-rotation depth would have you believe. The M’s’ 3.97 earned-run average is 11th in baseball – but the futures of Luis Castillo (30 years old), Logan Gilbert (26), George Kirby (25) and Bryce Miller (24) are all compelling. There’s also 2021 AL Cy Young Award winner Robbie Ray recovering from injury.

The idea is there for the M’s – especially with 24-year-old outfielder Jarred Kelenic (.270/.333/.495) producing (for most of) this year. But the record isn’t there. And with Rodriguez experiencing the dreaded sophomore slump, the Rangers outscoring them 30-9 in a recent three-game sweep, and with the three current AL wild-card leaders (the Orioles, Astros and Yankees) on pace to win 101, 97 and 95 games, respectively, there’s a reason is giving the M’s a 16% chance of making the playoffs.

That wouldn’t be good in any year when preseason expectations were so high. It’s particularly disheartening when the most talented and marketable baseball player in the world is set to hit free agency.

Who knows if the Mariners would be able to pay Ohtani’s market value. The 28-year-old’s contract will outpace his predecessors like Secretariat at the Belmont. But if you believe Forbes’ numbers, Seattle was tops in MLB in operational profit last season. Barring injury or a sharp decline in production, we can assume that the return on investment on signing Ohtani will reach Himalayan heights given his Ruthian skill set and international appeal.

This is a man who can win MVPs anywhere he goes. He knows that. Can he possibly view Seattle as a place where he can win a World Series ring, too?

With the take-it-one-game-at-a-time approach that so many teams (rightfully) embrace each season, it would be foolish for the M’s to be thinking about a player who’s not even on their team. Right now, they’re worried about the Padres, and then stringing enough wins together that they can return to the playoff hunt and become repeat entrants in the postseason.

But with Ohtani having 30 teams to choose from, the M’s are also auditioning. And at this rate, they aren’t going to get the part.