Major League Baseball has been around for a long time, but it’s never seen a player quite like Shohei Otani.
The Japanese phenom, currently playing for the Nippon Ham Fighters of Nippon Professional Baseball, is the definition of a two-way player. In five professional seasons, he’s posted a .286/.359/.505 slash line and a 2.77 ERA in just under 500 innings, earning three All-Star appearances and the 2016 Pacific League MVP award along the way.
Now, Otani has his eye on the ultimate destination for professional baseball: North America.
According to Jim Allen of Kyodo News, sources say that Otani wants to join up with an MLB team for the 2018 season. If he follows through on that desire, the Iwate native will immediately become one of the most compelling figures of the offseason, as just about every team would love to have his services.
This is far from the first time a Japanese superstar has considered a move to the US, but Otani’s case is unique because of his incredible talent and young age. Under MLB’s new collective bargaining agreement, international players must be at least 25 years old to escape the league’s restrictive rules for amateur free agent signings, up from 23 under the old agreement.
While Otani will be able to sign a long-term extension for a hefty sum once he reaches the major leagues, MLB has said that it will not tolerate handshake deals that promise future salary. He’ll have to settle for a signing bonus that could range from $300,000 to $10 million, a huge drop from the $300 million contract some estimates say he would have gotten under the old rules.
Otani could hone his craft in Japan and sign a massive deal once he turns 25, but for him, it’s not the compensation that makes MLB so attractive – it’s the level of competition.
“He doesn’t care about money. It’s not about the money,” fighters executive Toshimasa Shimada said, according to Allen.
MLB has seen some talented two-way players in the past, but Otani would be a unique player in major league history. As good as Babe Ruth was in his Red Sox days, he couldn’t touch 100 miles per hour with his fastball.
All of this could lead to a fierce bidding war. Scouts agree that Otani has what it takes to be a generational player, and while the team that acquires him will need to pay a steep $20 million posting fee in addition to the bonus, it seems he’d be a worthwhile investment for all 30 clubs.
But while most see Otani’s MLB future as being on the mound, the club that gets him will need to tolerate his desire for regular at bats. Indeed, his two-way status could become a deciding factor in the negotiations.
“If I were to focus on one or the other, there’s no guarantee I’d be better at it,” Otani told Kyodo News back in February. “Of course, I don’t know the ‘ifs’ or ‘maybes’ should I focus on one.”
Wherever he ends up playing, it seems that this is just the beginning for the versatile Otani. He’ll make a decision for 2018 after the conclusion of the NPB season in October.