The lack of star power in this winter’s free agent class has been well-documented. However, come this time next year, teams could be vying to sign one of the most intriguing players ever to hit the open market.
Meet Shohei Otani, a 22-year-old who was named Most Valuable Player of the Pacific League of Nippon Professional Baseball on Sunday.
Otani is a two-way star coming off one of the greatest seasons in Japanese history. He is a right-handed pitcher and left-handed-hitting designated hitter for the Nippon Ham Fighters and is equally adept both on the mound and at the plate.
Otani had a 10-4 record and 1.86 ERA in 21 games, 20 of which were starts, while posting a 0.95 WHIP and 11.2 strikeouts and 2.9 walks per nine innings. He also batted .322 with 22 home runs and a 1.004 OPS in 104 games.
Through his four pro seasons, Otani is 39-13 with a 2.49 ERA and has a .275 batting average with 40 home runs and an .838 OPS.
“He’s the modern-day Babe Ruth,” a Pacific Rim scout from an American League team said. “He’s a top-of-the-rotation pitcher and the middle-of-the-order hitter. We haven’t seen anything like him in modern times. Whenever he comes to America, he’s going to break the bank. There has never been anybody in free agency who could ever market themselves as a two-way player before.”
Players cannot become free agents in the NPB until they accumulate nine years of service time.
However, there is talk that the Fighters will allow him the opportunity to come to the major leagues next winter via the posting system. They would almost certainly gain the maximum $20 million posting fee from the major-league team that would sign Otani.
Some major-league executives believe Otani could possibly command a contract of at least $200 million if posted and some suggest he could even reach $250 million.
Otani throws his fastball in the high-90s and has been clocked as high as 103 mph. He complements it with a low-90s forkball that appears to “fall off the table” as it reaches home plate.
Though his changeup is still in the rudimentary stages, the scout said “it doesn’t matter because his other pitches are so good.”
Otani is also an outstanding athlete, who played a combined 62 games on the outfield corners in his first two NPB seasons. However, a sprained ankle sustained early in the 2014 season caused the Fighters to use exclusively as a DH the past two seasons.
The scout believes Otani would be able to handle major league pitching.
“His power is just starting to develop and he has a good eye,” the scout. “I’m sure there would be an initial adjustment period, more than it would be for him as a pitcher, but he has great talent.”
The Detroit Tigers have made it clear that all their veteran players are available as they look to make their roster younger and their payroll lower.
One player who figures to be dealt, perhaps at next week’s Winter Meetings in National Harbor, Md., is outfielder J.D. Martinez. The 29-year-old has hit .299 with 83 home runs and a 145 OPS+ over three seasons since signing with the Tigers in 2014 after being released by the Houston Astros.
Martinez is eligible for free agency at the end of the next season.
“You’re not going to get a ton for a guy with one year of control but he’s a right-handed hitter who can pop you 30 home run and that’s a valuable commodity,” a scout from an AL team said. “He’s one guy they should be able to get something for.”
Many teams have shown interest in Martinez but many people around the game believe he will wind up being dealt to either the Los Angeles Dodgers or San Francisco Giants.
“They both have the need and the prospect depth to make a trade,” the scout said.
The death of Fidel Castro on Saturday isn’t expected to have any immediate impact on baseball in Cuba as the Communist government, now run by younger brother Raul Castro, has continued to restrict native players from singing with major league teams.
While relations between the United States and Cuba have gotten somewhat better over the last two years with the renewal of diplomatic ties, it remains to be see if that might change once President-elect Donald Trump takes office in January.
“There is just a lot of unknown,” said an executive from an AL team. “In a perfect world, it would benefit everyone if the Cuban players would be able to be directly signed off the island instead of having to risk their lives by defecting.”
Ten men will be considered for election to the Hall of Fame on Sunday night, the eve of the Winter Meetings in National Harbor, Md., when the 16-member Today’s Game Era Committee meets: Harold Baines, Albert Belle, Will Clark, Orel Hershiser, Davey Johnson, Mark McGwire, Lou Piniella, John Schuerholz, Bud Selig and George Steinbrenner
Any candidate receiving votes on at least 75 percent of all ballots cast will earn induction into the Hall of Fame.
The various “Veterans’ Committees” put together by the Hall in recent years have rarely elected any former players. Thus, the educated guess here is that Schuerholz, Selig and Steinbrenner will gain induction.