Shohei Otani pitches for the Nippon Ham Fighters in the Pacific League Climax Series on Oct. 16
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Shohei Otani is what this current free-agent market lacks. He is a young, talented starter — already perceived as one of the best pitchers in the world — with the fringe benefit that he actually might be a superb hitter, as well.
But Otani is not expected to come to the American majors until next offseason, at which point the frenzy for his services likely will make him the first Japanese import to exceed $200 million.
“I actually think the guy might get a $300 million deal,” said a scout who has had multiple looks at the righty pitcher/lefty hitter. “That is how special a talent he is. He has power No. 1 starter stuff. He is throwing 99 [mph] in the eighth inning. His secondary stuff is unhittable. He is big and loose. His fastball is electric and his curve, cutter and split are all 70s [on the 20-80 scouting scale].
“And I think he is getting better as a hitter. I think an American hitting coach teaches him to turn on the ball more and he can be a 45-homer guy. He has Darryl Strawberry power. He is the face of a franchise. He is a big, handsome guy and when he plays baseball you cannot take your eyes off of him.”
Otani is 6-foot-4, began pitching professionally when he was 18 and this past season went 10-4 with a 1.86 ERA, 11.2 strikeouts per nine innings and — oh yeah — he hit 22 homers with a 1.004 OPS in 382 plate appearances. By the way, he does not turn 23 until July.
“I hate to use the name Babe Ruth, but who was the last player we thought might be able to be both your ace and your cleanup hitter?” said an American League scouting director. “There is always mystery because you have to translate a guy who pitches once a week on Saturday or Sunday and the hitting from there to here. But the talent translates. It is obvious and terrific.”
So, a year from now, who will be in play for this kind of talent? The answer is just about every team, but particularly the big markets. The Yankees and Red Sox were on him out of high school, when Otani was saying he wanted to jump directly to MLB. He decided to stay, in part because Nippon Ham Fighters told Otani they would allow him to hit and pitch. So a National League team (where pitchers hit) could be a swaying factor. Or might an AL team permit Otani to DH or play the outfield two or three times a week, in addition to joining the rotation?
The Yankees have restrained themselves from big spending in recent offseasons and have the contracts of Alex Rodriguez and CC Sabathia coming off the books after this season, plus Masahiro Tanaka could opt out.
The Cubs, who pursued Tanaka, will have the contracts of starters Jake Arrieta and John Lackey coming off the books after 2017. The Dodgers will be a year away from Clayton Kershaw potentially opting out of his deal, the same with the Red Sox and David Price. The Angels will be free of their last $25 million obligation to Josh Hamilton. The Astros, who were quietly in deep on Tanaka, probably have money to spend. The Phillies definitely do.
There was some thought Otani might come this winter, especially if Nippon Ham won the Japan Series, which they did. But I spoke to more than a dozen scouts, executives and agents who are vested in Japanese baseball and they all say next offseason is the target.
Traditionally, a Japanese team will give its American counterparts a heads up that a player could be coming after the season, so as many clubs as possible can scout him during the year, and that did not happen this past season. In addition, the posting agreement between Japan and MLB expires next year, and it could be in Nippon Ham’s favor to see if the posting fee rises in a new deal
Under the current system, for a player such as Otani, teams interested would put in the maximum post of $20 million, and every team that does so can negotiate with him. For example, the Yankees invested $175 million total on Tanaka — $20 million on the post to the Rakuten Golden Eagles and $155 million to Tanaka.
Japanese pitchers bring heightened concerns about whether workloads from their amateur/high school days and even side bullpen sessions makes them more likely to break down. But talent always subdues concerns.
“I am very high on him,” said a top AL executive. “He is really [bleeping] good. He has youth, athleticism, a sound delivery and tools — I am talking big tools. You see other guys with his tools and it just doesn’t come across as easily or as athletic as it does with [Otani]. If you have scouted him, you remember where you were when you saw someone dominate hitters the way he does.”