Shohei Otani is widely regarded as the best pitcher who is not currently playing major league baseball. He is also considered by many as the best hitter who is not in the major leagues. The 23-year-old Japanese star has surprised the baseball world by making it known that he wants to come to the United States to begin his major league career for the 2018 season. The Detroit Tigers, and every other major league club, should be pushing all of their chips to the middle of the table in an effort to sign Otani.
The fact that a player wants to play in the major leagues is not news. But Otani would be taking a huge financial hit by coming to the United States next season rather than waiting two years when he would be 25 years old and able to sign a much more lucrative contract as a professional free agent. How much more? The gaudy figure of $200 million has been bandied about. If he starts next season, he would be under club control with no way to free agency for six seasons.
The cost of signing Otani will be a $20 million posting fee, which goes to the Nippon Ham Fighters (Otani’s Japanese team), plus whatever bonus money a team can pay Otani under the new rules for signing international players in the new MLB collective bargaining agreement. In other words, Otani will receive a fraction of the money that he would get by waiting two seasons. He has said point-blank that he doesn’t care about the money, he just wants to play baseball on the grand stage.
Every major league team should submit their paperwork to Major League Baseball, indicating their willingness to pay the $20 million posting fee. That is a no-brainer, which gives clubs the right to make an offer through Otani’s agent, who has yet to be selected. Every club should offer as much bonus money as they can to entice Otani to join their club.
For a dozen teams who are still in baseball’s version of the penalty box for having blown past the bonus limits within the past two years, their bonus offer is limited to $300,000 on any one player. Teams like the Los Angeles Dodgers, Boston Red Sox, Kansas City Royals, and Houston Astros can only offer the posting fee, plus a bonus of $300,000 to Otani, plus a minor league contract that will pay him the major league minimum salary of $545,000 for the 2018 season.
For clubs not in the penalty box, the limit is the amount that they have left out of their bonus pool allotment, a hard cap which started out between $4.75 million for the Detroit Tigers and most other clubs, up to $5.75 million for the clubs in the smallest markets, plus up to 75 percent more if the club has acquired bonus money in trades. That means that clubs not in the penalty can acquire bonus money to spend a total between $8.3 million and $10 million on all international signing bonuses.
The problem for clubs wanting to make their maximum offer is that they spent most of their bonus money in July, when the current international signing period began. The New York Yankees, who have emerged from two years in the penalty box this season, have already spent $4.5 million, but they have also acquired over $3 million in slot money that can be spent. The Texas Rangers have the most spending money left at $5.35 million, with the Yankees next at $5.25 million. The Tigers have also spent most of their bonus money, and haven’t acquired any additional funds via trades.
If money is not the issue, what key factors might lure Otani to a particular major league team? Perhaps a city with a relatively large Japanese population, such as San Francisco, Seattle, or Los Angeles would be appealing. But the Giants and Dodgers are both limited to a $300,000 bonus. Maybe the Texas Rangers, where his friend Yu Darvish spent his best years, would be appealing. Or maybe being in a large media market such as New York or Los Angeles would allow Otani to recoup some of his lost salary through other marketing channels.
How good is Otani? In 21 games last season, he posted an ERA of 1.86 with a 0.96 WHIP, striking out 11.2 batters per nine frames. He spent much of the current season on the disabled list. In his career, he has pitched 80 games with a 2.49 ERA, 1.07 WHIP, and 10.3 strikeouts per nine innings.
As the designated hitter for the Ham Fighters, Otani hit .407 this season before suffering a thigh injury. In 2016, he hit .322/.416/.588 for an OPS of 1.004, with 18 doubles, 22 homers and 67 RBI in 322 plate appearances, striking out 98 times. Otani has said that he would like to both hit and pitch on a regular basis, so perhaps an American League team would be better suited for him.
In case you’re thinking that a club might be able to offer Otani a two-year contract and then let him leave as a free agent, think again. Major League Baseball would not tolerate such blatant circumvention of the signing rules, and there is no reason for a club to make such an offer other than to circumvent the rules.
Realistically, the Tigers have little chance of signing Otani, even if they were to acquire more bonus money to give him. They would need some sort of intangible benefit to offer the young Japanese star that no other team has. Detroit could surely guarantee him a spot in the major league rotation, and the lineup. But alas, the spotlights in Detroit probably aren’t bright enough.