By Bruce Levine–
ORLANDO, Fla. (CBS) — The next Babe Ruth.
That’s what Japanese pitcher/outfielder Shohei Otani is being touted as while he waits to become a free agent and sign with an MLB team. Otani has been the talk of the GM Meetings as the baseball world has gathered together, and with good reason.
As a pitcher, he can hit 100 miles per hour and had a 1.86 ERA and 11.2 strikeouts per nine innings for the Nippon-Ham Fights of the Pacific League in 2016, the last season in which he was fully healthy. He also also batted .322 with 22 homers and 67 RBIs in 104 games that season and boasts a lifetime .859.
Needless to say, every MLB team would love to have the 23-year-old Otani, including the Cubs and White Sox.
“You can bet that all the clubs in baseball have interest on this player,” an MLB owner said. “They will all be putting their best foot forward to sign this unique talent. The price to sign him will not be the deciding thing for this guy. You will have to sell him on your city and organization because he can get basically the same money from any team.”
Otani will be posted for $20 million, which means that’s the fee the Nippon-Ham Fighters will receive from the MLB team that Otani agrees to sign with. Otani’s initial salary will be a different story. Because’s he’s not yet 25 years old, he must abide by international signing rules, and the maximum a team can pay him is about $3.5 million out of their international signing bonus pool. If Otani had waited until he was 25, he would’ve been a typical unrestricted free agent and received upward of a $200-million contract.
The Cubs and White Sox are among the teams capped at offering $300,000 to Otani. That’s because they previously exceeded their signing bonus pool under MLB’s old collective bargaining agreement.
Because such a premium talent is available for such a small salary by industry standards, MLB teams have been warned they can’t promise extra salary or compensation by others means down the line. If they do, the punishment could range from a stiff fine to the possible loss of Otani’s rights for the future.
Otani’s dual-positioning talents make him intriguing. It’s expected that his representation will make it known that he wants to start once a week as a pitcher and be used on a semi-regular basis in the outfield the rest of the time.
It may be difficult for some teams to accede to Otani’s wishes. MLB pitchers put in an incredible amount of preparation in advance of each start, from studying film to bullpens to conditioning work. How would being a part-time position player fit into that? It’s still hard to say.
Otani fits the framework of what the Cubs and White Sox are looking for, but like other teams, they can’t discuss anything with him directly yet because he hasn’t officially been granted free-agent status yet.
Cubs executives Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer have signed a high-profile pitcher out of Japan before when they brought Daisuke Matsuzaka to Boston ahead of the 2007 season. He won 33 games combined in his first two seasons before his big league career took a downturn.
Otani represents the controllable young starting pitching the Cubs are seeking as they contend for championships.
“As far as this goes, I am not going to comment on him other than to say everyone has scouted him heavily and feels he is a terrific young talent,” Hoyer said. “I think we will abstain from commenting on him. We don’t talk about free agents, because we feel it’s a big advantage to hide your cards.”
Japanese infielder Tadahito Iguchi was a major contributor to the White Sox’s championship team in 2005, and Japanese reliever Shingo Takatsu was a member of the team earlier in that season as well.
More to the present, they’d be selling Otani on joining a crop of talented young players and prospects that they hope forms the core for championship contention farther down the line. They believe the 23-year-old Otani would fit that rebuilding timeline.
“We certainly have had success in that market,” Hahn said of the White Sox scouting Japan. “Iguchi and Shingo were important players for us as we built up the last World Series championship. We were in on the (Masahiro) Tanaka free-agent talks before he signed with the Yankees, and that has played out that way for the Yankees. It’s an avenue we certainly are going to continue to monitor. If there are potential pieces that can help facilitate our progress, we will be on it.”
Bruce Levine covers the Cubs and White Sox for 670 The Score and CBSChicago.com. Follow him on Twitter @MLBBruceLevine.