Shohei Otani: The most unique free agent in MLB history?

Tuesday night into Wednesday morning, various media outlets  within Japan began reporting that Nippon Ham Fighters phenom Shohei Otani would be leaving the NPB this winter and pursue a chance to play in the Majors starting in 2018.

The news sent shock waves throughout the baseball world as Otani effectively exists as the best baseball player outside of the United States. Not only this, but as the “Japanese Babe Ruth”, Otani brings with him both a major league-ready arm and bat. While injuries have limited the 23-year old this season, his potential remains sky-high.

Just last season in 104 games he posted a line of .322/.416/.588 with 22 HRs, 18 2Bs, and 67 RBIs with his bat. When it came to the mound, his numbers may have even more impressive than his offensive statistics as he went 10-4 with a 1.86 ERA, 0.96 WHIP, and 174 Ks in just 140.0 IP.

While Otani represents a generational talent, a true 2-way player with the potential to make a significant and immediate impact with his arm and bat, he also represents the greatest free agent bargain the baseball world has possibly ever seen.

By choosing to leave the Ham Fighters this winter as opposed to departing at the conclusion of 2019, Otani will remain an international amateur under MLB’s new CBA which prevents international players under the age of 25 from being signed to exorbitant sums of money. This means that if he were to leave Japan following 2019, his age 25 season, Otani may well have been offered free agent contracts upwards of $200 million in part due to his age and ability. Instead, by coming overseas this winter, some teams will be financially restricted to signing him under these new international signing rules, and Otani will ultimately sign a minor league contract worth barely $10 million.

However, if money were his only reason for coming to the States, Otani simply would have stayed with the Fighters through 2019. By asking to be posted by his NPB team at the end of his season, Otani is sending the message that money is not his end-game, rather that a new challenge is what he wants most. This alone makes the pursuit of Otani in the coming months ever more interesting. While some teams such as the Yankees, Rangers, and Red Sox look poised to offer Otani as much as they can in regards to the new amateur spending limits, teams like the Dodgers and Cubs, both significantly restricted in what they can offer to international amateurs, remain in play because of this stance Otani has taken.This gives both rich and poor, restricted and unrestricted, the chance to pitch their organizations to the Japanese phenom.

While it’ll be a few months before we see which MLB team Otani ultimately decides on, the race for his services is already shaping up to be one of the most intriguing story lines the game of baseball will ever see. A legitimate two-way, major league-ready player at the age of 24 for the price of around $10 million seems almost too good to be true.

Let’s just put it this way: for Otani’s age, ability, and price tag, it could be even more fascinating to see which teams AREN’T in the running for his services come winter time because the player and his contract make sense for all 30 teams to pursue. Whoever chooses to watch this race from the sidelines – and some teams incredibly enough will – will be risking the opportunity to land a once in a life-time player and deal.

All statistics provided by Baseball Reference.


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