For years, both fans and teams alike have wondered “When will Shohei Otani be posted?” I’ve been asked this question dozens of times, but the answer was always “We don’t really know, it really depends on what Otani and the Fighters want.” Nobody’s a mind-reader, and both Otani and his team have been very tight-lipped on the matter. 2017 was always a logical starting point, since under the previous Collective Bargaining Agreement that’s the first year when his bonus would be un-taxed and all teams would be eligible to bid for him. Otani turns 23 in July, and age 23 was the magic number. However, that changed last week when the new CBA was agreed upon.
MLB has instituted hard caps on international signing bonuses and has raised the age at which those bonuses are uncapped to 25. Both changes are egregious, the latter of which even more so. The biggest target of the age limit change are aged 23-24 Cubans, whose market was already shrinking (recently shown by Lourdes Gurriel signing for significantly less than initially expected). This change wouldn’t normally impact players from NPB; the youngest player posted in recent memory is Yu Darvish, who was 25 when the Fighters posted him in 2011. Most players are 26-27 when posted, including Kenta Maeda. However, Otani is not most players. He is the most singularly exciting baseball player of this generation, a true two-way superstar. The buzz was always that the Fighters would be willing to post him early in return for Otani’s decision to stay in Japan rather than signing in the US out of high school. MLB raising the uncapped bonus age to 25 seemed to be a stab in Otani’s direction, one which would keep him in Japan until after the 2019 season.
However, this does not seem to be the case. Last night, Otani announced that he wants to play in MLB starting in 2018, meaning he would still be posted next offseason. Via the Kyodo News:
The 22-year-old, who re-signed with the Japan Series champ Fighters in a deal worth 270 million yen ($2.37 million) for the 2017 season on a 70 million yen pay raise, told officials he is eyeing the move in as early as the 2017 offseason.
“I know that the club will respect my will whenever I decide I want to go (to the majors). It’s pleasing to get that support and I’m thankful for it,” said Otani, the holder of Nippon Pro Baseball’s fastest pitch record at 165 kilometers per hour.
So, suddenly we don’t need to guess Otani’s wishes anymore. Now we know what they are. That’s a really significant step in Otani’s path to MLB. However, this question also creates a lot of confusion, which is worth going over in more detail.
The new international free agent caps loom very large. If Otani’s bonus was uncapped, and if he has a good year in 2017, he would stand to make at least $150 million, with the sky being the limit. However, if Otani’s bonus were to be capped, the most he would make is the maximum of the $5-6 million hard cap, plus whatever extra bonus (up to 75%) a team could trade for beforehand.
Here’s where we get to some very bad news for Dodger fans: if Otani is posted next offseason and his bonus is governed under the new pooled system, they will not be able to sign him. When the Dodgers significantly exceeded their pool amount in the 2015-16 international signing period, they were penalized by not being allowed to sign any international players with a bonus over $300,000 until July 2nd, 2018. That penalty still holds under the new system. It’s hard to fault the Dodgers for not seeing this coming so far in advance, but as a fan it would really really suck.
This could create some pretty severe unintentional consequences for MLB as well. If you were a team interested in Otani (as everybody should be) and there was a chance for you to get him, wouldn’t you wait to see if you could sign him before signing this year’s crop of younger international free agents and reducing your pool? Otani is MLB-ready now, and why wouldn’t teams bid their full pools for Otani’s services? The 16-year-old kids from Latin America deserve to get paid too, but they could be waiting for over six months for the Otani situation to resolve itself before they sign. In many cases, these players already have deals in place, some of which may be shelved or reneged. This could also create a rush to trade for extra international cap space as teams gear up to offer Otani the largest bonus they possibly can. Teams like the Dodgers may benefit from this, but it’s hard to say this far out.
If these rules remain in place, one has to wonder why Otani would want to come to MLB, rather than waiting two years for an uncapped bonus. Shortly after the Fighters won this year’s Japan Series, manager Hideki Kuryiama told reporters that Otani is not really interested in money. Additionally, even after a significant pay raise, Otani is not making much money in NPB yet:
Shohei Otani renewed his contract for 1 year, 270 million yen for 2017. https://t.co/yFNbnExfby
— Kazuto Yamazaki (@Kazuto_Yamazaki) December 5, 2016
That’s about $2.4 million US Dollars. Last season, Hiroki Kuroda was the highest-paid player in NPB, making about double that. If Otani gets a theoretical maximum bonus of around $8 million USD, that would cover a few seasons of that difference, enough for him to get to arbitration.
Additionally, if every interested team is bidding about the same amount of money, this could significantly increase Otani’s odds of actually getting to try to be a two-way player in MLB. It could be a difference-maker for teams making that pitch. It also reduces the monetary risk from the team’s side, but it’s hard to make a strong case for caring about that.
Still, that’s potential for a record-setting payday turned down, and it’s hard to see a player actually doing that. Just because his manager says he isn’t interested in money doesn’t make it true. As a baseball fan, I don’t really want it to be true, either. I’d really rather that Otani did not rationalize MLB’s frankly greedy behavior. One can’t understate how terrible it is that MLB put a system in place that could cost a player hundreds of millions of dollars, let alone the most exciting prospect in decades. It would be a very strong statement if Otani just waits, or does not come to MLB at all. After all, MLB is the league who just shot themselves in the foot.
Overall, I’m pretty skeptical that Otani will be playing in MLB in 2018 unless there are major changes made. Jeff Passan of Yahoo! has been adamant that these changes are possible since the collective-bargaining agreement was signed:
Sources: While new CBA essentially prevents Japanese star Shohei Otani from coming to MLB before 2019, rules could be changed to allow it.
— Jeff Passan (@JeffPassan) December 1, 2016
Sources told Yahoo Sports this week that there are potential ways around the limit on spending for under-25 players like Shohei Otani.
— Jeff Passan (@JeffPassan) December 5, 2016
With Otani stating his intentions to play in MLB sooner rather than later, these levers may have to be pulled now. If you’re a Dodgers fan, those levers could mean that your team can sign Otani. If you’re a baseball fan, those levers also mean that Otani would be fairly rewarded for his talent. If the system is not changed, it will be hard to be happy about Otani coming over soon, and that would be incredibly disappointing. It’s time for MLB to do the right thing.
As an aside, if you’re wondering why there’s confusion about writing Otani’s name (Otani vs. Ohtani), I wrote about it here.