The top star player in Japanese baseball, Shohei Otani, has announced publicly that he wishes to perform for one more season in his homeland before making the move to Major League Baseball.
Otani will turn 23 years old in July of 2017. He would likely be directly affected by terms of the new Collective Bargaining Unit between MLB and the Major League Baseball Players Association.
Under the newly negotiated terms, MLB teams may not sign a player for more than $5 million until they reach age 25. It has been estimated that a player of Otani’s talents would fetch upwards of $250-300 million if he were an unfettered free agent.
“I actually think the guy might get a $300 million deal. That is how special a talent he is. He has power No. 1 starter stuff…throwing 99 [mph] in the eighth inning. His secondary stuff is unhittable. He is big and loose. His fastball is electric and his curve, cutter and split are all 70s [on the 20-80 scouting scale].
“And I think he is getting better as a hitter. I think an American hitting coach teaches him to turn on the ball more and he can be a 45-homer guy. He has Darryl Strawberry power…the face of a franchise. He is a big, handsome guy and when he plays baseball you cannot take your eyes off of him.”
Because of the new CBA terms, speculation was running rampant last week that Otani would likely remain in Japan at least through the 2018 season.
Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports was the first to speculate that there could be ways around this situation for a player of Otani’s caliber.
So what’s all the excitement, you might ask? Well, I’m assuming that if you have read this far, you already have heard of Otani. But let’s not assume. You know what Felix Unger said about assuming. (If you don’t, maybe never heard of Felix, check out the following video.)
OTANI EMERGES AS A HITTING STAR
Otani is only the most exciting Japanese ballplayer in years. He is considered at least as talented as the great Yu Darvish, only Otani has another element to his game.
Considered the best pitcher on the planet who was not performing in MLB, Otani was given an opportunity in this past season to use a bat on a regular basis.
During the 2016 season, Otani served not only as a pitcher, but also as a Designated Hitter with Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters of the NPB Pacific League.
In 382 plate appearances, Otani hit for a .322/.416/.588 slash line with 22 homers and 18 doubles. He produced 67 RBI and scored 65 runs.
In addition to those DH duties, Otani has also appeared in 62 games as an outfielder during his professional career.
OTANI ON THE MOUND
On the mound, the 6’4″ right-hander (he bats lefty) went 10-4 with a 1.86 ERA and 0.957 WHIP this past season. He allowed just 89 hits over 140 innings with a 174/45 K:BB ratio.
Since making his pro debut at age 18 in 2013, Otani has appeared in 80 games on the mound, 77 of those as a starter. He has allowed just 371 hits over 517.2 innings with 595 strikeouts.
Raw numbers don’t impress you enough? This past summer, Otani won the Home Run Derby at the Japanese All-Star Game, and then threw the fastest pitch in league history.
For his performances this year, Otani was named as a “Best Nine”, the Japan baseball version of a season-ending all-star, at both the pitcher and DH spots. He was also named the Most Valuable Player of the Pacific League, and led Nippon-Ham to the Japan Series championship. He is a 3x NPB All-Star.
Otani throws a four-seam fastball that sits regularly in the mid-upper 90’s, but which has topped out at 102 mph. He has a strong slider as well, throws a forkball, and mixes in a developing curve.
OTANI MAY BE POSTED EARLY
Now comes word that Nippon is considering posting him early, possibly in anticipation of such an “Otani waiver” or change to those posting rules. The player has made no bones about his desire to test himself in MLB sooner rather than later.
“There’s no change in my longtime desire to go there,” he said to the Japan Times, per a recent piece by Anthony McCarron for the New York Daily News. “I’m playing now with thoughts of wanting to do it someday and produce results.”
Otani would become an outright free agent following the 2021 season. At that point he would be 27 years old. However, he can become a free agent at any point moving forward should Nippon post him.
“We discussed the possibility of me going,” he said per a report at ESPN. “… The club will respect my wishes whenever I decide I want to go.”
That same ESPN report includes a Otani quote from the Japan Times: “First I will give 100 percent for the Fighters next year to be Japan’s best again. I’ll put my soul into it.”
Fans of Major League Baseball will not have to wait until 2018 or beyond to watch him perform against big leaguers, however. Otani is expected to lead the Japanese team in next spring’s World Baseball Classic.
MANY CLUBS WOULD BE IN ON OTANI
If the 2017 season is indeed the final one for the Japanese phenom, you can expect a number of MLB clubs to be involved in bidding for his services.
Included among those bidding teams would be some of the game’s biggest traditional spenders, and those in the best financial positions. The New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox would certainly be involved.
Other teams expected to become involved in bidding on Otani would include the Philadelphia Phillies, Los Angeles Dodgers, Chicago Cubs, and San Francisco Giants. Every big league club is going to have to evaluate the possibility of getting involved.
Whoever lands Otani is likely going to have to offer him the opportunity to hit and possibly play the field. In the AL, the DH spot could be used. In the NL, playing the outfielder part-time or in a platoon would work.
Watching how this situation involving the posting of Shohei Otani develops over the next year is going to be fascinating. And when he does finally arrive in America, how will he actually perform? It appears that we are going to find out, well before this decade is out.