Shohei Otani is coming. The 23-year-old ace, Japan’s Babe Ruth, the savior to every Major-League team with a slot in its rotation (so… every team) will reportedly soon become available through the posting system that has brought other stars from Nippon Professional Baseball to the Major Leagues. So… now what?
You probably have a lot of questions about the pitcher/hitter who could soon be the biggest baseball story of the winter. Luckily, we’ve got some answers.
Who is Shohei Otani?
Shohei Otani is a pitcher (mostly) for the Nippon Ham Fighters and the reigning Pacific League MVP. At age 23, he is one of the most promising Japanese prospects of all-time.
What makes Otani so special?
Well for one thing, Otani is the best pitcher in Japan, with a career 2.52 ERA. His numbers in an injury-plagued 2017 season weren’t dazzling (3.20 ERA), but in 2016 he posted a 1.86 ERA and 174 strikeouts in 140 innings.
Oh and by the way, Otani can also hit. Like, a lot. During his big 2016 season, he posted a .322/.416/.588 slash line, making him one of the Pacific League’s top batsman, in addition to its premier pitcher. In 2017, he hit only .332/.402/.540, for a .940 OPS that would have ranked in the top 15 in MLB.
When will Otani come to the U.S.?
Though we don’t know for sure, Otani will apparently arrive this winter. He has hired an American agent, MLB has negotiated with the Fighters to set a $20 million posting fee, and according to Japanese media, the pitcher will soon be available to all interested teams.
Will he both hit and pitch in the Majors?
It seems he will. Otani will be a pitcher first and foremost, but he has stated his desire to hit as well, and it’s likely a team will let him do so if it means convincing him to sign.
How would that work?
Most likely, Otani would DH two or three times a week when he’s not pitching. Exactly how often he gets to hit will presumably depend on how successful he is at the plate.
Is there modern precedent for a true two-way player?
Not really. Even guys like Rick Ankiel who have reached the Majors as both a hitter and a pitcher have not done so concurrently. The Padres recently tried to use Christian Bethancourt in both roles, but that experiment failed pretty spectacularly. To find a pitcher who was good enough at the plate to earn substantial pinch-hit opportunities, you have to go back to Wes Ferrell in the 1930s. To find one who was good enough at the plate to regularly start on days he didn’t pitch, you must look to, yes, Babe Ruth.
How much will Otani be paid?
This is where things get complicated. Under the previous MLB collective bargaining agreement, Otani would have been free to negotiate a salary with any team that agreed to pay the posting fee. His eventual contract would have likely reached nine figures.
However, the current CBA dictates that all international free agents under age 25 be paid on the same scale as players who came up through the minor leagues. That means Otani’s base salary his rookie year will be the same as the backup catcher who was just summoned from Triple-A. The CBA also strictly caps what signing bonuses teams can pay for young international players. We’ll spare you the details, but the Rangers can offer Otani a $3.535 million signing bonus, the Yankees can offer $3.25 million and the Twins can offer $3.245 million. No other team can give Otani more than $2.5 million, and only three others (Pirates, Marlins, Mariners) can afford even seven figures.
So where will Otani sign?
If only we knew. Otani has already sacrificed a ton of money by choosing to come over before age 25. If he wants to recover as much of that lost cash as he can, he’ll choose Texas, New York or Minnesota.
Our money is on the Yankees, who have the cash, the fame and mystique and the history of Japanese stars. They even have a potential mentor for Otani, in Japanese righty Masahiro Tanaka.
In New York, Otani could slot in nicely among the Yankees’ cadre of young stars, peaking right alongside Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez, Luis Severino and the rest. But with Otani still several steps away from signing with an American team, we’re probably getting ahead of ourselves.