He's been called Japan's Babe Ruth, and for good reason.
23 year old Shohei Otani of the Nippon Ham Fighters is easily the best player in the world not currently under contract to an MLB team. That appears about to end, however, as multiple reports from the Far East suggest that he's ready to come stateside next season, foregoing millions of dollars in the process.
Otani had an inury-plagued 2017, as thigh and ankle issues limited him to 63 games and 4 starts. The left handed hitter/right handed pitcher was the JPPL's MVP in 2016, hitting .322/.416/.588, and going 10-4 with a 1.86 ERA, fanning 174 in 140 innings. He underwent surgery on the ankle this week, but all indications are that he'll be ready for spring training.
Otani is a true generational talent - he can dial his fastball up to 100, and is a dangerous LHH. His desire is to continue to be a two-way player in North America, although most teams pursuing him appear to be content to let him DH a few times per week between starts. Otani reportedly would like to play the outfield on occasion as well. While it's understandable that teams might not want the ace of their staff taking a position on the field in between starts, the Blue Jays happen to have an opening in Right Field, of course, and Otani would fit incredibly well with Marcus Stroman at the top of the rotation.
Under the terms of a new MLB collective agreement, players under 25 (who have less than six years' experience in a foreign pro league) can't sign for bonuses of more than about $10 million. Teams are limited to a hard cap of between $4.75 to $5.75 million in bonus money during the IFA signing period, although teams can trade for up to 75% of their bonus pool money - the Yankees received $1.5 million in pool money from Oakland in the Sonny Gray deal, and have quietly upped their total to just over $8 million, the same amount that the Red Sox have to spend. Would they be willing to blow the bank on one player? With a player of Otani's status, that seems likely.
Unlike the bidding for previous Japanese players, the playing field is fairly level. Some of the bigger players, like the Cubs and Dodgers (who Otani almost signed with out of high school), can't sign an IFA for more than a $300K bonus because they exceeded their pool limits in the past. There currently are as many as 8 teams that theorectically could offer him the max bonus of $10.1 million, but 3 of them (Royals, Padres, and Cardinals) also are limited to $300K.
If he was to wait two more years, Otani would likely command a deal in the $150-200 million range. Even though the new CBA dictates that he has to sign a minor league contract, and would be limited to the MLB minimum of $545 000 (and would be subject to MLB's service time rules, which would mean that he wouldn't be eligible for free agency for six years), there are some who suggest that Otani's reps will be sure to include some sort of under-the-table extension agreement. While that may be the case, if such an agreement were discovered by MLB, the penalties would be harsh. The scrutiny the Braves are currently undergoing as a result of past transgressions in the international market (which has already cost GM John Coppolella his job) might cause a team to think twice about such an arrangement.
Where do the Blue Jays fit in the Otani scenario? They have quietly been building a relationship with both Otani and the Fighters. Dan Evans, the Blue Jays Director of Pacific Rim Operations, has a lengthy relationship with teams and player across the ocean dating back to his days as the Dodgers GM. One of the most respected MLB scouts in Asia, Evans has been following Otani since his days as a storied high school player, and has spent a fair amount of time in Japan following him since he turned pro. Evans has also built strong ties with the Fighters' front office. When Otani returned to action this fall, a number of Jays personnel joined Evans in Japan scouting him, including Assistant GM Andrew Tinnish, director of pro scouting Ryan Mittleman, and several west coast scouts. Teams simply don't make this type of investment in a player (sending a sizeable contigent to Japan for several weeks is a huge expense) if they're not all in on him. Many teams have sent multiple front office types, of course, but few have had as sustained (or as prominent) a presence as the Blue Jays.
In order to go on the international market, the Fighters will have to post him. The posting fee this time around is said to be in the $20 million range - a far cry from past posting fees.
Despite leaving all that money on the table, stories from Japan state that Otani lives very frugally. His parents give him a stipend of $1000 US per month from his earnings, most of which he spends on fitness books and workout equipment. This is a player who appears very much to want to prove himself in MLB, and the money - at this point - seems to be secondary. The Rangers appear to be very much in the running, along with the Blue Jays, Red Sox, and Yankees. Perhaps the Cubs and Dodgers, who covet Otani, could still be in the running despite their bonus limitations, with the promise of future earnings. The Padres and Mariners also reportedly have been in the mix. One thing is for certain - the team that does sign him will win the lottery, getting an MLB-ready impact player for half the cost of Lourdes Gurriel Jr, who the Blue Jays gave a 7 year/$21 million deal to last year. Are the Blue Jays a player for his services? No one knows for sure, but if the Blue Jays fail to sign Otani, it won't be for a lack of effort. Unlike past IFAs like Aroldis Chapman, Daisuke Matsuzaka, and Yu Darvish, all of whom the Jays were reported to be "in" on, there's at least a feeling that the Blue Jays at least have a chance this time.