Friday, October 13, 2017

Could Otani Sign with the Blue Jays?

Getty images

     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.


Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Blue Jays Send Large Contingent to Arizona

Jackson McClelland - Clutchlings photo

  The Blue Jays will be sending one of the largest groups of players to the Arizona Fall League in recent memory.  8 players and one coach will suit up for the Peoria Javelinas when play begins later today.
   The AFL serves as a finishing school for the top prospects in most organizations.  Teams use the experience to see how their players stack up against elite competition.  The time in Arizona is also used by teams to give their players some added reps if they had missed some time due to injury during the regular minor league season.
    Four pitchers will be playing for Peoria on behalf of the Blue Jays, including relievers Andrew Case, Jackson McClelland, and Danny Young.  New Brunswicker Case does not blow hitters away, but with his command and ability to set up batters allowed him to limit hitters to a .230 average at 3 levels this year after beginnning the year in High A.  McClelland, like Case a RHP, saved 15 games in 16 opportunities between Lansing and Dunedin this year, with a tidy 1.08 WHIP.  Young is a sidewiding lefty who changed his arm slot last season.  After starting the season at Dunedin, left handed hitters managed only to hit .154 against him in AA.  The Blue Jays are building some impressive bullpen depth in their system, and it won't be a surprise to see this trio fare well in Arizona.  Starting Pitcher TJ Zeuch, the club's first round pick last year, seemed primed to take off this season.  A lower back strain landed him on the DL in June, and his rehab was set back by a hamstring strain.  Zeuch returned in August, but on a strict innings/pitch limit.  He's in Arizona to make up for lost development time, having only pitched 11 innings since the end of May.
    The Blue Jays will be sending a pair of Catchers to the Southwest.  Max Pentecost has missed considerable time since being drafted in the first round in 2014.  After a successful return in a role limited to DHing last year at Lansing and Dunedin, Pentecost returned to Catching with the D-Jays, also spending time at 1st and DH.  Injuries forced him to be shut down for much of June and again for most of August.  A premium talent who likely would be a big leaguer by now if not for the time lost to injury, it will be interesting not only to see how Pentecost fares against the advanced competition in the the AFL, but what position he will take on the field.  Many have wondered if he can stand up to the rigors of Catching every day, and with the development of Danny Jansen and the acquisition last year of Reese McGuire, the Blue Jays may be contemplating moving him out from behind the plate.
    Javier Hernandez, who may be the best defensive Catcher in the system, will join Pentecost on the Peoria roster.  Injuries limited his season debut until late June, and he's in Arizona for some added reps.
   The verstaile Lourdes Gurriel Jr will also suit up for Peoria.  The much-heralded off season free agent signing from Cuba had his own injury struggles this season.  Splitting his season between Dunedin (18 games) and New Hampshire (46), Gurriel showed plenty of promise on both sides of the ball.  Gurriel split time between SS and 2B this year, but showed MLB-ready skills in terms of his reactions to ground balls, as well as his footwork, hands, and arm.  His bat was a different story, which can be at least in part attributed to two seasons of inactivity prior to this one, and some time on the DL earlier this year.  He's in Arizona to help accelerate his development.
   OF Jonathan Davis, who has shown an ability to get on base throughout his minor league career, and can play all three Outfield positions, is the 8th Toronto prospect assigned to Peoria.
   Rounding out the Toronto contingent is former MLBer Corey Hart, who drew raves for his work as Dunedin's hitting coach this year.
   The AFL serves as a lab for the latest MLB pace of play experiments.  The pitch clock will be tinkered with this year - with no runners on, a Pitcher must come set before the 12 second clock runs out.  With runners aboard, he'll have 15 seconds once he receives the ball back from the Catcher.  In addtion, mound visits by Managers or Pitching Coaches will be limited to 30 seconds.  The extra-inning runner replacement rule will also be implemented this fall.  Long used in international play, and adopted by the complex leagues this year, the main purposed of the rule at the lower levels is to help preserve pitching staffs.  Starting with the 10th inning, the player who made the final out in the top of the 9th (or a pinch runner), will be placed on 2nd.  The same will happen in the bottom of the inning.  If no winner is declared after 11 innings of play this fall in the AFL, games will end in a tie.    
   In addition to the Blue Jays prospects, the Peoria lineup features players from the Braves, Mariners, Padres, and Red Sox.  Atlanta hopeful Ronald Acuña, Baseball America's Minor League Player of the Year, joins Padres slugging 1B Josh Naylor (a Greater Toronto Area product), and Michael Chavis, Boston's 2nd ranked prospect will don the Javelinas uniform.
   The AFL plays a compressed six-week schedule, with a winner take all championship game November 18th.  The Fall Stars Game on November 4th is usually streamed live, as is the league final. There is a huge assortment of prospect evaluators on Twitter who often live tweet the action.