In this era of information, Shohei Otani is like baseball’s Russian nesting doll, with one mystery encased in a mystery cloaked inside yet another mystery. He is one of the world’s most prominent athletes, a pitching and hitting talent who might fetch $200 million to $300 million today if he were placed up for auction as a pure free agent, yet Major League Baseball teams continue to dig for the most basic clues about who he is and what he wants.
They know that Otani wants to be a pitcher and a hitter of prominence -- he’s known as the Babe Ruth of Japan -- but they don’t know if he’d prefer to pitch or hit if a choice must be made down the road. They also don’t know if he has a particular geographical preference: the East Coast or the West Coast or somewhere in between.
They don’t know if he wants an AL team over an NL team, with access to at-bats as a designated hitter. They don’t know if he would prefer to play alongside another star from Japan, such as the Yankees’ Masahiro Tanaka, to ease his transition. There have been rumors that he would prefer to be part of a rebuilding effort rather than joining an established power, but nobody really knows if that means he’d pick, say, the Twins over the Dodgers.
“The information that’s out there might be hearsay based on speculation,” one evaluator said.
And then there is the overriding mystery: Nobody knows for sure if he’ll have the opportunity to play Major League Baseball in 2018, because MLB’s player transfer agreement with Nippon Professional Baseball has expired. As of Monday afternoon, the two sides continued to be at a standoff.
A small but important element of the Otani puzzle fell into place Monday: CAA will serve as representatives for Otani, led by agent Nez Balelo, who is also believed to be the front-runner to act on behalf of star left-handed pitcher Yusei Kikuchi.
Other prominent agents, including Scott Boras, had worked to position themselves to represent Otani, with at least some of them trying to navigate an unusual process: Candidates submitted proposals to the Otani family lawyer without actually meeting the player himself, which only fueled the mystery.
Moving forward, there are dominoes that must fall into place before Otani appears in an MLB uniform next spring. The NPB and MLB need to resolve their differences for an agreement, which includes satisfying Otani’s team, the Nippon Ham Fighters, with what it considers fair compensation. While everybody within MLB -- from the teams to the central office -- recognizes the incredible potential that Otani bears in his skills and marketing potential, there is a reluctance to create a systematic exception designed only for him.
When and if the NPB-MLB agreement is settled, Otani must then decide whether to he wants to jump to MLB for 2018. The perception of an army of MLB evaluators is that this is what Otani wants to do, and intends to do.
But unless there are changes in the MLB’s agreements with the NPB and the MLB Players Association, the difference between what Otani would get for 2018 in guaranteed money and what he would stand to gain by waiting until the 2020 season could be measured in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
Otani is 23 years old, and under the current rules, any player under the age of 25 is subject to MLB’s international signing rules. Rather than being a free agent, with the ability to sort through what would be staggering offers from teams across MLB, Otani will have to accept the maximum dollars allowed under the terms of a system negotiated just last fall by the MLB Players Association. The spending money available from team to team varies, but mostly, clubs would compete on what is generally a level playing field: The most Otani could get would be about $10 million.
If Otani moves to MLB for the 2018 season, he would begin his career like all players taken in the domestic amateur draft, requiring at least two-plus years of MLB service time before becoming eligible for arbitration. The first really big money Otani would be guaranteed would probably become available to him in the form of a multiyear contract after his first or second year in the big leagues.
Some current agents say their strong recommendation to Otani would be for him to wait to jump to MLB after the 2019 season, because that’s when he would be eligible to take offers from all teams without restriction.
As one agent noted, this would be in the first year after the free agency of Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, when Otani could benefit from salary ceilings raised even higher. “It makes sense for him to stay in Japan,” one agent said. “It makes complete sense.”
But as teams try to push through the veils of the Otani mystery, many operate under the assumption that one way or another, he intends to play for an MLB team next season. Club executives keep hearing that he understands he’ll make plenty of money through endorsements, and that what is foremost in his mind is competing at the highest level.
“The player is coming here,” one official said. “There is no doubt about that.”
Well, maybe there’s a little doubt. That's because there’s still much hearsay based on speculation based on baseless regurgitated whispers about the player who will be the most discussed in baseball’s 2017-18 offseason.