There have been rumors aplenty regarding Shohei Otani's future in the United States, and early this morning, Yahoo's Jeff Passan relayed reports from Japan indicating that the two-way star will play for a major league team in 2018:
Otani has hardly pitched this season due to a leg injury, only getting his first opportunity on the mound a couple weeks ago. He's still been able to hit, and it hasn't lacked, as he's posted an impressive .346/.416/.574 with 7 home runs in 185 plate appearances. Now that he's healthy enough to pitch, we've been reminded of just how talented Otani is as a pitcher:
His ability on both sides of the field is scintillating, to say the least. How a major league team will utilize him is to be determined, but one would have to think that an American League squad has a leg up on signing Otani, considering that he doesn't want to give up hitting. In theory, he could be the designated hitter on some or all days that he doesn't pitch.
What makes Otani's departure from Japan somewhat surprising is the timing. Rather than becoming a free agent in two years, Otani will only sign for a relatively small bonus this winter and then receive roughly the Major League minimum salary until he reaches arbitration in another three seasons. As Passan notes, there are restrictions on signing international players under the age of 25. Otani is 23. The Yankees have maxed out their bonus pool via a few trades that netted international bonus slots, giving them a cap of approximately $8.3M. However, much of that has already been earmarked to other international prospects, so it's not clear how much the Yankees have available for Otani. Other teams are in similar situations, and we really won't have much of an idea of who can offer him the most.
Considering that Otani is foregoing true free agency in two years, it's evident that money isn't a deciding factor. Maybe I'm wrong, but I can't imagine that he'd eschew a team he prefers for, say, an additional $250K only because his preferred team falls just short of what another can offer. He's only going to get a few million dollars of a bonus at most, and all of the maximum offers should be very competitive given the pool restrictions. It's not clear who Otani favors, though it's evident that the Yankees (and just about every other team) are interested. General Manager Brian Cashman was just in Japan to see him up close, which says all you need to know.
This report still seems somewhat hard to believe given how much money he's sacrificing the join a major league club. We're still at least two or three months away from any team officially signing the two-way star, so there's still time for him to waver on his decision. Given the money at stake, I don't think it would shock anyone to see him change his mind and wait another two seasons. That being said, the report as it stands is an exciting proposition for the Yankees and other potential suitors. It would be awesome to see him in the Bronx next season.