The Hot Corner
Issue   |   Tue, 11/14/2017 - 21:45

Japanese pitcher Shohei Otani announced this weekend that he is making himself available to Major League Baseball as an international free agent, beginning the most intriguing bidding contest in recent memory. Otani currently plays professionally in Japan for the Nippon-Ham Fighters, and before you laugh, remember that two MLB teams are named after sock colors.

In just over five seasons as a professional, Otani has compiled a 42-15 record with a 2.52 ERA. This past year, despite injuries to his thigh and ankle, he posted a .335 average with eight homers in 65 games. And now he is bringing his two-way show to the States.

This should make any baseball fan absolutely giddy. Nobody since Babe Ruth has even approached this degree of two-way potential. This is like a quarterback who spends time in the trenches as a defensive lineman, or a shot putter who also runs the marathon. It’s the athletic equivalent of working both at NASA and the Louvre. Pitchers simply do not hit that well; on half of the major league teams, they don’t hit at all. Each year, Louisville Slugger bestows the Silver Slugger award upon the best hitter at each position. In 2017, the award went to Adam Wainwright, who hit .262 across 24 games, a breathtakingly mediocre average that meant even less when one remembers his horrid pitching numbers from this year. Otani threatens to bring a level of power and consistent hitting that rivals MLB MVP candidates. Ichiro Suzuki, a sure fire Hall of Fame inductee on the basis of his hitting alone, hit .353 in his time in Japan, which, though superior to Otani’s numbers, is still comparable. Hideki Matsui, a two-time All-Star and 2009 World Series MVP, hit only .304 in Japan.

And this is all in addition to a lights-out pitching repertoire. Otani has hit 102 miles per hour with his fastball, the fastest pitch ever recorded in Nippon Professional Baseball. Between his heaters, he baffles hitters with a knee-buckling splitter and a wipeout slider, all of which make for an entertaining highlight reel.

Some commentators have reminded their audiences of the fact that Nippon Professional Baseball and Major League Baseball are not the same league, arguing that we should place little stock in someone we have never seen on Sunday Night Baseball. But it is not as if he has been playing American Legion Ball for the past five years. Japanese players such as Matsui and Ichiro have shown that success in NPB can predict MLB potential just as well as success in the minor leagues in the U.S. Otani even faced a team of MLB All-Stars during an exhibition game back in 2014, and made some good hitters look really bad. Nor have international scouts ignored Otani, and their reviews are clear — he’s good.

As mentioned, Otani has had a couple injuries in the past year. But, he is an established young star and, without a doubt, the most prized international free agent available this offseason. In 2012, Yu Darvish, a former Nippon-Ham Fighters star, signed a six-year, $60 million contract with the Texas Rangers. In 2014, Masahiro Tanaka inked a monstrous seven year and $155 million deal with the Yankees. Neither of these pitchers carried the promise that Otani does — and neither can hit.

Yet Otani will receive only a mere fraction of what Texas and New York payed Darvish and Tanaka. Major League Baseball, in order to prevent a few big-market teams from out-bidding the rest of the league, has imposed a strict cap on what teams can pay free agents younger than 25. Otani is only 23, so he cannot expect more than a pittance by Major League standards. Otani had been on MLB scouts’ radar for some time, but they always assumed that he, like most other Japanese players, would wait until he turned 25 to make himself available for the show. Otani, however, decided he didn’t care to wait.

Granted, the “pittance” Otani will receive will still be a few million dollars, so there is little need to take up a collection for him. But, it is not every day that a professional athlete turns down a payday like the one Otani had on the horizon. The decision mixes a childlike disregard for wealth, a ferocious desire for competition and a swaggering confidence that he’ll have a hefty sum waiting for him when his rookie contract runs out. It’s tough not to like that. His choice also begins a courtship worthy of a reality show. Though teams have slightly different salary allotments for international free-agency, the figures are not so different that Otani will merely be looking for the highest bidder.

The process for signing Japanese free agents is both dramatic and complicated. First, Otani’s suitors place bids for the Fighters’ blessing: serious candidates will post the $20 million maximum. Otani’s current club, with significant input from Otani himself, then will decide which MLB organization gets the rights to Otani’s services. That team then can negotiate with Otani for 30 days, at which point he will either sign with the MLB team or stay in Japan. Since several teams will likely be willing to put up the full $20 million, Otani will have his pick of teams with which to negotiate. They’ll each attempt to persuade him of their virtues, and in his case, discuss the extent to which they will endorse his two-way aspirations.

It would be truly tragic if he signed with a National League team: without a designated hitter, he would need to play in the field four of every five days in order to find a way into the lineup. Most teams probably would not like to see their star pitcher roaming right field, trying to throw out runners the day after a start, so that might mean the end of his hitting days. An American League team, however, could put him and his smooth lefty swing in the DH spot and at least give the experiment a little longer to play out.

As baseball looks for marketable and exciting talent, it can do no better than Otani. Like a magician preparing the audience to witness an impossible feat, Shohei Otani has made clear what he plans to do and that we should doubt him at our own risk.

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