Japanese superstar Shohei Otani is already familiar to readers of MLBTR; he is generally regarded as the best pitcher in the world who isn’t working in the majors. He’s also a highly productive slugger in Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball league. And he’s just 22 years old. (For comparison’s sake, both Yu Darvish and Masahiro Tanaka came to the majors in advance of their age-25 seasons.)
It has long been wondered just when he’ll make it over to the majors, but rule changes have conspired to gum up that possible transition. First came the application of a $20MM cap on posting fees, which reduces the incentive for NPB clubs to make players available before their control rights are set to expire. Then, the latest iteration of the CBA put hard caps on teams’ capacity to spend on international players who are under 25 years of age, thus precluding the possibility of Otani commanding a bonus befitting his ability until the 2019 season.
Despite those barriers, there are indications now that Otani could nevertheless attempt a move to the majors as soon as next season. As Jon Wertheim of Sports Illustrated writes, executives with Otani’s current team, the Nippon Ham Fighters, are preparing to lose their all-everything performer after this season. Importantly, per the report, Otani also intends to request potential MLB suitors commit to allowing him both to pitch and to hit.
Notably, also, “multiple sources” suggest to Wertheim that Otani’s still-undetermined representatives may be able to find ways to sweeten any arrangement. Though he’d nominally be forced to slog through MLB’s typical control process, perhaps he would be able to negotiate some sort of provision that enables him to reach the open market before he reaches six years of service. Other international players have been able to negotiate such provisions; Nori Aoki and Yoenis Cespedes come to mind as examples, though neither of those players was subject to the same rules regime as Otani will be.
While the up-front guarantee would be a pittance of what he’d earn on the open market, or even as a typical posted player, that may not prove as much of a barrier as had been thought. In an interview with 60 Minutes that is set to air on Sunday, Otani reputedly states that he hopes to move to the big leagues after the current season, as Bob Nightengale of USA Today tweets.
Wertheim’s piece, which is well worth a full read, details Otani’s background. As he notes, the phenom considered bypassing the NPB altogether to join a big league team. The Fighters landed him, in part, by promising to make him a two-way player. Part of that bargain, the piece suggests, was that the club would not protest when Otani decided it was time to cross the Pacific.
To say the deal worked well for Otani’s current team would be an understatement. Last year, he slashed a ridiculous .322/.416/.588 and swatted 22 home runs in 382 plate appearances while also posting a 1.86 ERA with 11.2 K/9 and 2.9 BB/9 over 140 frames. And by the picture painted by Wertheim, Otani is a model teammate with a modest personality and full dedication to his craft(s).
Just how Otani’s otherworldly Japanese statistics will translate to the majors is open to some debate. He would surely be viewed as a notable potential big leaguer for his bat, but is most prized for his arm. As Wertheim notes, an American League organization would seem to offer the most ready route to fulfilling Otani’s intentions, since he could stride to the plate without being forced to play the field on days he’s not pitching. Whether he’s intent on spending time in the outfield, too, isn’t clear.
Plenty of time will pass before anything is formalized, and much could change in the meantime. Should Otani become available, however, it would likely make for an unprecedented effort by major league organizations to woo him. That’s due not only to his unusual dual capabilities (and wishes), but also his young age and the unique circumstances of the rules limiting what he can be paid. Literally every team in the game would have cause to pursue him vigorously, particularly if the financial commitment is as meager as it seemingly must be.