TOKYO (AP) — Shohei Otani is likely to leave Japan and sign with a Major League Baseball team after this season, multiple reports in Japanese media said Wednesday, a move that would cost the 23-year-old pitcher and outfielder more than $100 million.
In his fifth season with the Nippon Ham Fighters, the reigning Pacific League MVP is prized as both a pitcher and hitter. But under restrictions in MLB's new collective bargaining agreement, his signing bonus would be limited to about $3 million to $4 million, a fraction of the $155 million, seven-year deal that pitcher Masahiro Tanaka received from the New York Yankees before the 2014 season. Otani would have to wait until after the 2019 season to receive a comparable deal in MLB.
"I think he wants to compete against the best, and I think that's great," New York Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "I think that's what's in every competitor's heart. They want to match up against the best to see how they fare."
Boston Red Sox manager John Farrell led a major league tour in Japan in 2014.
"He's an impressive player," Farrell said. "I didn't see him hit, but obviously the numbers beyond 2014 are very impressive. A unique talent — no doubt about it. To be able to throw a baseball and pitch like he can — and swing a bat like he can — I'm sure it has grabbed the attention on every team with his potential."
Under the MLB labor contract agreed to last November, Otani is defined as an international amateur because he is not 25 and does not have six years of service in any professional leagues. Because of that, he must sign a minor league contract to enter MLB, an amount subject to a team's signing bonus pool.
MLB teams are prohibited from circumventing the restrictions, such as with an unannounced agreement for future seasons, and would receive harsh punishment if caught by the commissioner's office. Because of that, Otani has economic incentive to wait two years before leaving for MLB. He would then be considered a professional.
If Otani is made available under the posting system agreement between MLB and the Nippon Professional Baseball, the maximum a team could bid is $20 million, and if the $20 million is accepted, all teams bidding that amount would be eligible to sign him.
In the signing period that began July 2, 12 teams are prohibited from giving signing bonuses of more than $300,000 as penalties for exceeding their bonus pools under the previous labor deal: Atlanta, the Chicago Cubs and White Sox, Cincinnati, Houston, Kansas City, the Los Angeles Dodgers, Oakland, St. Louis, San Diego, San Francisco and Washington.
Teams start with a signing bonus pool of $4.75 million to $5.75 million and can trade allocations and acquire them in amounts totaling up to 75 percent above their original figure. Many already have spent significant amounts on Latin American amateurs.
Only eight clubs as of now have the ability to give a signing bonus of more than $1 million through next June: Texas ($3,535,000), the New York Yankees ($3.25 million), Pittsburgh ($2,266,750), Minnesota ($1,895,000), Arizona ($1,867,500), Miami ($1.74 million), Detroit ($1,072,000) and Seattle ($1,057,500).
If added to the active big league roster, Otani would receive a 2018 salary at or just above the major league minimum of $545,000. He would not be eligible for salary arbitration until after the 2020 season and for free agency until after the 2023 season. Any long-term contract later agreed to would be scrutinized by MLB.
He has a 39-15 record with a 2.60 ERA and 601 strikeouts in 522 1/3 innings, and a .286 batting average with 47 homers and 163 RBIs. Otani has been limited to 51 games this season by thigh and ankle injuries, and he has pitched just twice for the Ham Fighters this season.
"He's definitely intriguing," Girardi said. "Could a guy pitch and DH some? I think it's possible, I do. I think you'd be concerned a little bit maybe the day before his start, but it does create a unique situation where if he's able to DH, it kind of opens up another spot on your roster. So to me times if you needed to go to a six-man rotation, it becomes a lot easier with the spot open."
AP Baseball Writer Ronald Blum in New York contributed to this report.
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