The stove is on and slowly warming up, but we don't have a lot of meat to dig our teeth into just yet. As of late, the biggest news in terms of moving towards actual moves is that all nine recipients of qualifying offers rejected them. That wasn't particularly surprising, given the relatively lackluster nature of this offseason's free agent market. However, given the fact that those players figured into the upper echelon of this year's potential offseason acquisitions, it needed to happen before front offices could start crunching numbers and actually make some signings.
There's been another couple of big developments over the last week with regard to this year's free agent class, at least in a roundabout way. Namely, we're faced with the potential reality that every single player on the top free agent list for this offseason will need to be bumped down one spot in honor of the arrival of Shohei Otani.
First, a quick primer on Otani for the uninitiated and recap for those already in the know. In a world where Madison Bumgarner (a career .185/.232/.322 hitter) is the best-hitting pitcher, and where #positionplayerspitching and #pitcherswhorake are trending whenever possible, a player who is a top-shelf starting pitcher and a top-shelf hitter is the proverbial white whale. Otani is known as the Japanese Babe Ruth, which ought to be enough to whet your appetite for his arrival in MLB. But let's indulge in a little bit of statistical support, though.
In his five-year career in Japan's NPB for the Nippon Ham Fighters, Otani has made 82 starts and has put up a 2.52 ERA over 543 innings. His peripheral stats are also the stuff that teams salivate over, with 10.3 K/9, 3.3 BB/9 and 0.4 HR/9. This past year, he's been even better, with a 2.25 ERA over 16 starts and 10.9 K/9. His fastball can top 100 MPH he has an excellent splitter and slider. In scouting reports, Noah Syndergaard's name is bandied about when discussing Otani's stuff, so you can clearly see why teams would be interested in him for his pitching ability alone.
On the other side of the ball, Otani is a career .286/.358/.500 hitter. That's almost identical to Chris Taylor's breakout 2017 season (.288/.354/.496, 126 wRC+, 4.7 fWAR), and it helps to explain that we're talking about a legitimate hitter here, not just a pitcher who can hit a little better than his peers. He's been even better this year, with a .333/.435/.631 slashline over 301 PA, which was good enough for him to lead the NPB in OPS. He's a true two-way star that led his team to a Japanese championship in 2016, their first in a decade and third since their inception in 1946.
Clearly, there's the issue of translating his skills from Japanese to American baseball, and we probably have to adjust our expectations downward a bit. But, as we mentioned earlier, Otani is only 23 years old, so he's actually really more of a true rookie (assuming he's posted) and not even fully-formed yet. Smarter people who know a lot more about dealing with international players' skillsets than I think that he has the potential to be an MLB All Star on both sides of the ball, after all.
You can see why every single team in MLB would want to sign Otani. So where do things stand right now? That, after all, is the reason we're doing this article. Shohei Otani was officially posted by the NPB on November 10, and it looked like all was well and good with the world and we'd be getting the pleasure of seeing him on American soil very soon. That, in and of itself, was far from guaranteed to happen.
Last year's CBA made some serious changes to the way that the international signing system works. It raised the age of prospects covered by the bonus-pool system from 23 to 25 years old. This seriously affected Otani's situation, since he's 23 years old and he will now have to sign to a minor-league contract subject to international bonus-pool limits which restrict what each team can spend on him. The new CBA also placed a hard cap on what teams can spend, rather than the previous system, which imposed taxes and then limited future signings for a couple of years.
This change to the CBA was ostensibly in the interest of competitive balance. The argument goes that limiting what teams can spend works in favor of keeping the best international prospects away from the free-spending Yankees, Dodgers and their ilk. A more cynical person (like myself) might point out that it seems more like an attempt by MLB to reduce international signees to the indentured servitude endured by minor leaguers, but your mileage may vary. Regardless of your views on labor relations in sports, the MLBPA (who doesn't actually represent the players whose rights they were negotiating away) agreed to the terms and, now, them be the rules.
Long story short, Otani is only able to be receive, at-most, about $3.5 million from the Rangers, with similar amounts from the Twins and Yankees and then slowly decreasing all the way down to $10K with the Indians and Rockies.This alone might have been enough to keep Otani on the other side of the Pacific for a couple of years, when he turns 25 and would be able to come to MLB as a true free agent.
Otani, however, has already made millions playing baseball and, as you can see from reading this Sports Illustrated article from April of this year, there are quite a few anecdotes that support the veracity of this Otani quote: "As long as I have enough money to be able to play baseball and am enjoying baseball, that’s all I’m asking for right now." Otani clearly wants to face MLB pitchers and hitters as soon as possible and is willing to (at least temporarily) leave hundreds of millions of dollars on the table to do so.
Regardless of his motivations, Otani was posted a week ago and all set to come to MLB. This, however, was dependent on the fact that MLB had reached an agreement with NPB to grandfather Otani in under the old CBA for posting considerations. This meant that the Fighters could pursue the $20 million cap, rather than the $150,000 they would receive under the posting rules of the new CBA, in order to make them whole for the loss of their own personal Moby Dick.
That all changed when we learned that the MLBPA has a problem with the posting agreement. The MLBPA likely isn't thrilled that Otani's current team would be receiving so much more than the actual player (even if they were the ones that agreed to these changes on Otani's behalf in the first place), so we're going to have to wait until this Sunday to see if the Players Union and MLB can sort out some sort of solution to resolve the Shohei Situation. That's a lot to parse, but we're going to have to wait a couple of days and see what happens.
There's a lot more to talk about, obviously. Assuming everything works out and Otani is available to any team who should want him (and every team will), where will he end up? There's been plenty of analysis on this front. If you want a well thought out statistical breakdown, The Hardball Times has you covered with their Otani Algorithm. There's been plenty of more discussion, trust me. But there's really know way to say. Given how little teams will be paying him, Otani has all the leverage in this situation, and he's made it clear that he wants to continue to hit and pitch.
While the advantage would certainly seem to go to an AL team, since he could DH on days when he isn't pitching, he could feasibly still get in a respectable number of at bats playing a couple of days a week and pinch hitting the rest of the time. It turns out that he might be just as valuable on an NL team.
There's also the issue that even those teams with lower international spending-pools could find a way to skirt them by an off-the-books agreement to buy out the rest of his minor-league contract and sign him to an extension after his first season. To do so, they would have to tread carefully to make sure it's not too flagrant and that MLB doesn't void the contract (for more on that, you could read this one or this one about the tricky nature of this business).
It's a complicated situation. The only thing that we know for certain is that Otani wants to come to the MLB and wants to be given the opportunity to pitch and hit. Beyond that, we don't really know. Wherever Otani goes, it's likely going to have to be written into his contract that he is going to get enough plate appearances and innings pitched to satisfy his desire a true two-way player.
There are a lot of potential arrangements and we certainly can't cover all of them here. But, I'd be willing to bet that you can expect those numbers to get him across the 100 IP and 300 AB threshold. That would make him the first player to do that in a century. That player? The aforementioned American Babe Ruth. Let's hope that we can get all this labor stuff behind us pronto and enjoy us an Otani show in 2018.