It is a rare thing for a pitcher in the MLB to be considered a good hitter; Madison Bumgarner has captivated many by putting up a mediocre .703 OPS over the past three seasons while continuing his excellent career off the mound.
It is no wonder that the player who is often being referred to as, “Japan’s Babe Ruth” is starting to generate serious interest from MLB fans across the country. In late November 2016 Shohei Otani confirmed rumors that he intended to pursue a contract with an MLB team once the 2017 season had ended.
Not much after his announcement the new collective bargaining agreement created a different set of circumstances for Otani to sign on with an MLB team. This begs a couple of questions: “What kind of player can Shohei Otani be in the MLB?” and “Will he still come to the USA in 2018 after the new MLB CBA?”
Otani was selected in the 2012 NPB amateur draft by the Nippon Ham Fighters in the first round and over the past four years has established himself as the top talent in the Japanese League. The righty thrower easily fires in a fastball that sits between 96 and 98 and tops out at 100 with movement. He has three secondaries, two of which should translate to plus pitches once in the MLB, he can mix in with good command.
That mix plus the fact that he’s often described as an elite athlete creates the profile of a guy who could be a top of the rotation starting pitcher depending on how he adjusts to the different workload and better hitters in the MLB.
That profile alone is worthy of teams courting him to play for their club, but Shohei adds an extra question of the bat. Always a solid hitter (for a pitcher) he broke out in 2016 where he hit 22 home runs and had a slash line of .322/.416/.588 over 382 plate appearances for Nippon Ham, playing right field when he wasn’t pitching. The 6’5” 210 lb.
Otani generates great bat speed and his long lanky frame provides leverage to elevate the ball naturally. With his strong lower half and an athletic quickness he should be able to make the transition to the MLB with the bat as well even if there are a few tweaks in his future.
There is one problem though; the new collective bargaining agreement means that signing any foreign free agent under 25 and with less than 6 years of service time will count against and MLB’s international bonus hard cap, which is about $6,000,000 depending on the team’s circumstances.
Shohei, who turns 23 in July, stands to leave a great deal of money on the table by coming to the USA before his 25th birthday and signing an unrestricted free agent deal then, but according to him that might not be a problem. When asked about this on 60 Minutes he stated through his translator, “Personally, I don’t care how much I get paid or how much less I get paid because of this.”
To Shohei it may be more about how a team views him as a player as many teams may project only the arm or the bat at an MLB level and not both. Otani has always wanted to hit and pitch as it is his stated reason for staying in Japan at 18 instead of signing a minor league deal in 2012. His final decision may very well come down to which MLB team will let him hit and pitch.
While it is impossible to predict what the Japanese League star will do after the 2017 season, all signs are pointing towards him signing with an MLB team sooner rather than later.
Shohei is an intense competitor as told by those around him and even with a smaller bonus than he might be worth, endorsements and benefits will keep him comfortable while he competes on the brightest stage.
Who knows, with the Jon Daniels sighting at an NPB stadium watching Shohei Otani warm-up it could even be with the Texas Rangers.
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