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Voided contract gives Twins extra $3M to chase Japanese star Shohei Ohtani

MINNEAPOLIS — The Twins have voided the $3 million contract of international signee Jelfry Marte after he failed a physical, the club confirmed.

That money goes back into the Twins' international bonus signing pool, which explains how the Associated Press, using figures obtained from the commissioner's office, reported last week the Twins still had $3.245 million remaining with which to pursue Japanese superstar Shohei Ohtani.

That places the Twins among the three major league teams with the most international money to use in pursuit of the highly unusual pursuit of the 23-year-old two-way talent.

Only the Texas Rangers ($3.535 million) and the New York Yankees ($3.25 million) have more, but Ohtani's decision figures to come down to other factors such as off-field earning potential, championship contention and a team's ability to pay him handsomely with his next contract.

Marte, a 16-year-old shortstop and Baseball America's No. 13 international prospect, is a free agent and working out for teams in Orlando, Fla., during the GM Meetings at Disney World. Baseball America's Ben Badler, citing multiple sources, reported the issue with the physical was Marte's vision. The Twins still could sign the 5-foot-11, 170-pound infielder at a lower bonus.

Ohtani could be an unrestricted free agent if he waited to sign after turning 25 on July 5, 2019, but the right-hander is said to be committed to making the jump now. He is also said to be interested in hitting between pitching appearances.

"I think we'd let him do whatever he damn well pleases," Twins general manager Thad Levine joked this week during an appearance on MLB Network.

After acquiring an additional $500,000 in international bonus money with the July 31 trade that sent closer Brandon Kintzler to the Washington Nationals, the Twins pushed their original cap figure to $5.75 million. They signed Venezuelan outfielder Carlos Aguiar in September to a bonus of around $1 million, according to a person with direct knowledge, and ostensibly used up an additional $1.5 million on a handful of lower-wattage signings.

Like every other big-league organization, the Twins have scouted Ohtani extensively for years. Koji Takahashi, a part-time Twins scout for nearly a decade, has met Ohtani's parents but most major league teams have been frustrated by the lack of access.

"Nobody gets special meetings with Ohtani," a person with direct knowledge said recently. "That's not possible. The parents are pretty much off-limits, as well. The NPB (Nippon Professional Baseball) doesn't like it when we show up. They don't let you get too close."

The 6-foot-3 Ohtani slugged .500 as a left-handed hitter and pitched to a 2.52 earned-run average in five seasons with the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters. He recently hired agent Nez Balelo, with whom the Twins have a strong working relationship. He also represents Twins pitcher Phil Hughes and former Twins such as Trevor Plouffe and Aaron Hicks.

While the posting system for Japanese players is in a transition period, the Fighters recently announced they would allow Ohtani to pursue a contract with a major league team.

The Twins recently sold the contract of reliever Michael Tonkin to the Fighters. He will receive a guaranteed $2.1 million over two years, and the Twins established a working relationship with the Fighters, who outbid at least four other clubs for Tonkin's services

Ohtani, who hit 102 mph with his fastball in September 2016, was slowed this season by a left ankle injury that kept him off the mound for all but five outings (25⅓ innings). His nine-inning walk rate spiked to 6.8, more than double his career rate, and his strikeout rate dipped a bit, as well.

"If you want him, you have no choice but to let him hit," said the source with direct knowledge. "You're either in or you're out on him as a two-way player. He's a viable player, for sure. He's extremely talented. He can run, throw, field and he's got power. It's just hard to translate that bat."

Even if the Twins aren't able to lure Ohtani to the Upper Midwest, they could trade some or all of their remaining international bonus pool to the team that ultimately secures his rights.

The Pioneer Press is a Forum News Service media partner.

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