The Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters are planning to post two-way superstar Shohei Otani after the 2017 season, according to a report from Sponichi (Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports has follow-up tweets). Should the team follow through next winter, Otani would immediately become one of the most sought-after members of the 2017-18 free agent class.
Since the Fighters have five remaining years of control over Otani before he was eligible to come to North America as a full free agent, this move comes as quite a surprise. Otani just turned 22 last July and he helped lead the Fighters to the 2016 Japan Series championship after an all-around spectacular season. Not only did Otani post a 1.86 ERA, 11.2 K/9 and 3.87 K/BB rate over 140 innings, he also hit .322/.416/.588 with 22 homers over 382 plate appearances as a designated hitter. In Otani’s four professional seasons, he sandwiched a good year at the plate in 2014 between mediocre hitting performances in 2013 and 2015 before his superstar-level breakout this year.
Otani has long drawn the attention of MLB scouts, and he even considered foregoing Nippon Professional Baseball altogether in order to go to the majors as a teenager before agreeing to accept being drafted by the Fighters. The right-hander has a four-pitch arsenal that includes a fastball that has topped out at 102mph, though he generally throws it in the 95-97mph range. As a hitter, Otani swings from the left side and has displayed tape-measure power.
At the end of the 2017 season, Otani will be 23 and will have played five seasons in NPB, which would’ve made him eligible to sign with any team as an international free agent under the old rules of the collective bargaining agreement. (Though he would’ve been subject to the existing posting rules for Japanese players.) Under the new collective bargaining agreement, international players will only be ineligible from the stricter international bonus pool system if they’ve played six years in a recognized top league (like Cuba’s Serie Nacional) or are older than 25; years old. It isn’t yet clear whether those rules apply to just Cuban players or to all international talents. In any case, the overall stricter international signing policies have created some debate about when and how Otani would be impacted, though Passan tweeted earlier this week that some adjustments could be made to accommodate Otani or other Japanese players.
Assuming some adjustments are indeed made to allow Otani to be posted normally, any MLB team willing to cough up a $20MM posting fee to the Fighters will be eligible to negotiate with Otani. Once he agrees to a (no doubt very sizeable) contract with a North American club, only the team that actually signs Otani would pay that $20MM fee to Nippon-Ham, leaving the Fighters with relatively little financial incentive to be posting their best talent. One would think that Otani has perhaps requested to be posted, hence the early decision by the team.