It isn’t about the money. Athletes reflexively say this, and sports fans roll their eyes, because of course it’s about the money. It’s always about the money. Then along comes Shohei Otani, 23 years old, the finest baseball player Japan has produced in years, maybe decades, a once-in-a-generation sort who can throw 102 mph and hit tape-measure home runs, a player whose free-market value would start at $200 million if Major League Baseball didn’t restrict the signings of international players under 25 to barely $10 million.
Only Otani, it seems, does not mind the prospect of giving up literally hundreds of millions of dollars to play in the greatest league in the world. Multiple reports out of Japan on Wednesday morning there said the same thing: Otani, who has been called the Japanese Babe Ruth, will enter the posting system this winter and play for a major league team in 2018. This came as no surprise to the general managers and scouts who have flocked in recent weeks to watch him pitch for the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters. It also didn’t lessen their excitement any.
“It’s really happening,” one GM said, half-mocking, half-giddy at the prospect of the 23-year-old spicing up the free-agent market this winter. And fascinating as his courtship would be in normal circumstances, the prospect of the best player available signing one of the most piddling contracts makes it unlike any free agency sports has seen: One where it literally isn’t about the money.
If it were, Otani would wait two years, bide his time with the Fighters and arrive in the major leagues a true free agent, able to sign with whomever he wants for however much he desires. Instead, MLB’s new collective-bargaining agreement limits the teams to hard-capped bonus pools between $4.75 million and $5.75 million to spend from July 2 until June of next year. A team can trade for up to 75 percent of its bonus-pool value, meaning the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, both of whom have acquired international bonus money, can have a maximum of $8.3 million. The eight teams with $5.75 million to spend can deal for up to $10.1 million total, though three of them are restricted from signing any player for over $300,000 because of penalties from exceeding past pools.
Eleven teams in all, including the Los Angeles Dodgers, Chicago Cubs, San Diego Padres and Houston Astros, face the $300,000 ceiling, complicating his decision even more. Otani considered signing with the Dodgers out of high school. The Cubs, with Jake Arrieta’s pending free agency and huge raises coming for their position players, covet Otani. San Diego has spent as much time as any team aside from the Texas Rangers pursuing relationships with Otani and trying to strengthen its Japanese pipeline. The Astros have sent a delegation of officials to Japan and, like every other team, cannot conceive of having what one scout calls “one of the five best pitchers in the world” for such a bargain.
The process for Otani to come to MLB would work as follows: First, the league and Nippon Professional Baseball need to agree on a new posting system, according to sources. While the current version caps the posting fee paid to the Japanese team at $20 million, the sides continue to negotiate new terms and are expected to settle on a new deal before November, sources said. The fee is likely to remain flat, allowing Otani to shop for his preferred team, as opposed to the past, when it was part of a blind bidding and handcuffed the player to the major league team that bid the most.
Once Nippon Ham posts Otani – something to which they’ve agreed already, according to the Japanese reports – he will have a window during which he can choose his new team. The international money will be treated as a signing bonus, and Otani – who in the world’s second-best league last season posted a 1.86 ERA, struck out 174 in 140 innings and hit .322/.416/.588 with 27 home runs – will sign a minor league contract.
Whichever team signs him will purchase that contract and select him to its major league roster, and so will begin Otani’s major league career – presumably at the minimum salary of $545,000 or somewhere near it. Because Otani would sign a minor league deal, he will be subject to MLB’s service rules, which necessitate six full years of time before free agency. For the first three years, the team is not required to pay him more than the minimum; even in the most generous cases, the best players in baseball get barely $1 million. The next three years, Otani would enter the arbitration system, in which salaries are generally outlined by comparable past players.
Since the new rules regarding international players were announced, the question surrounding Otani has been some derivation of: How is he going to skirt them? Officials at MLB insist any effort to subvert the spirit of the rule will not be allowed. Would the league, for example, attempt to cancel a nine-figure contract extension for Otani if he stars in his first season? One official said precedent will matter, and any contract that doesn’t have a forebear will be considered a violation. Might a team attempt to negotiate an under-the-table deal to make whole Otani as well as the Fighters? It could, though MLB believes the possibility of being caught and sanctioned will scare teams straight.
The intention of the rule was to clamp down on the salaries being handed to Cuban amateur players – tens of millions of dollars that dwarfed the maximum amount an American amateur could receive. MLB wielded the near-billion dollars given to a few dozen Cubans over the last decade and the threat of an international draft as a cudgel used to convince the players’ union that an international system with a hard cap was a good idea, even if it meant players like Otani might be driven away.
Baseball is lucky its frugality didn’t deter him. Shohei Otani is coming to Major League Baseball, and soon enough we’ll find out what matters to him. Is it becoming MLB’s first true two-way player in decades? If so, the American League, where he can DH and pitch, is his likely landing spot. Is it going to a contending team and winning a World Series? All 30 will sell themselves as the next big thing. What won’t really matter, at least publicly, at least as far as we know, is the number of zeroes after the dollar sign. Rare though it may be, sometimes it really isn’t about the money.
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