By: Ben Greenberger
Shohei Otani might be the best baseball player in the world. The Japanese phenom has the potential to be this generation’s Babe Ruth. And one lucky team will pay next to nothing to acquire his services if he decides to come stateside this offseason (or next offseason).
Otani, 23, is a rare once-in-a-century talent. He has thrived in Japan’s highest professional league as both a pitcher and a DH. In 2016, he hit .322 with 22 homers and 67 RBI in 104 games. Not only is he a dynamic bat capable of upgrading the middle of a team’s lineup, but he is also an ace on the mound. The righty posted a 10-4 record with a 1.86 ERA that same season. Many fans often object to the assumption of continuation of these gaudy numbers, but even if there’s a small regression, Otani is still 23 and if his production regresses, he would still be worthy of MVP consideration.
It’s easy to see why every team would be interested in Otani’s services. However, Japanese pros are generally expensive, so that should limit the amount of teams able to spend big on Otani. But, there’s a huge exception to consider. Otani is only eligible for a maximum salary of any team’s international signing pool money (the Texas Rangers have the most available, at $3.5M). An MLB team will likely pay a posting fee of $20M to Otani’s NPB League team, the Nippon Ham Fighters, and then they can negotiate what will likely amount to a ~$3M deal with Otani. Since he is still considered an amateur (under 25), the deal will be restricted to a minor league contract, similar to the deals typically signed by Latin American prospects. It will likely be a short-term deal, leaving him with the ability to re-enter free agency by his mid to late 20s. If Otani waits two more years, he will be able to get as big of a contract as he wants (at least from the team that pays the posting fee).
As for the frontrunners for Otani’s services, it seems like the favorites are the Mariners, Yankees, and Rangers–AL teams who can offer money, comfort, and two-way versatiity for Otani. Every team figures to make an effort, though, as it would be foolish to not chase a player with perennial All-Star potential at the plate to compliment his 102-mph fastball off the mound.