Japanese superstar Shohei Otani has not made anything official, but indications continue to gather that he will indeed seek a move to the majors over the offseason to come. After reports emerged recently that Otani was lining up to request that he be made available by his current team, the Nippon Ham Fighters, the 23-year-old pitcher/outfielder has now begun to interview MLB player agents, according to a report from Jon Heyman of Fan Rag.
It seems that Otani and those close to him have already begun the process in earnest, with a variety of well-known agents making the trek to Japan (even as MLB executives do the same). Heyman’s report suggests that the search for a rep is moving at a healthy clip, with Otani said to be possibly preparing to “begin a second round of interviews within the next week or so” after narrowing the field of possibilities.
Otani is widely regarded as the best baseball player in the world that isn’t currently wearing a MLB uniform. Given his age and immense talent (as both a pitcher and a hitter), there’s little question that Otani would command a nine-figure commitment were he free of the international bonus pool caps.
Because he is less than 25 years of age, and evidently does not wish to wait to make the move, Otani can receive only a minor-league deal that almost certainly won’t top seven figures. The precise bonus that each team can offer varies widely, but in no event can a team accumulate and dispense more than $10.1MM under the current system. And even those teams that could reach that figure will have committed some funds to other players. Quite a few organizations — including some that seem to be looking into Otani — cannot even give more than $300K to a single player, owing to penalties imposed under the prior bonus system. (Whatever team signs Otani would also need to send $20MM to the Fighters, though that element of the player exchange rules is said to be up for potential discussion before the offseason transactions get underway in earnest.)
With that backdrop, Otani’s meetings with prospective agents are all the more interesting to ponder. Just what he’ll prioritize in deciding upon a MLB team — geography, the ability to play both ways, likelihood of contention, marketing opportunities, long-term extension possibilities — isn’t clear. And his precise approach will surely be influenced by what he believes to be possible after this series of sit-downs.
Many have speculated that Otani could seek — and teams could offer — a handshake agreement of some kind to enter into an early-career extension. While the league has indicated it will police any attempts to evade the bonus pool rules, there seems to be a broad gray area that could theoretically be encountered. Just how far will Otani’s agents and organizational suitors go in weighing a future contract during initial talks? How long might they wait to formalize any such agreement? What would happen if injury or performance issues intervene to change the future expectations? These are fascinating questions that we won’t know the answers to for some time — if the issues even fully form — but the groundwork for how things may play out is being laid right now.