With one Japanese star already locked up, the New York Yankees will now turn their attention to another.
Masahiro Tanaka surprised some last week, choosing to opt into the three years and $67 million left on his deal. The decision leaves New York’s rotation with him, Luis Severino, Sonny Gray and Jordan Montgomery under contract. Then there is CC Sabathia, a free agent who could return to the Yankees’ rotation in 2018.
Whether he does should not influence the team’s pursuit of Shohei Otani.
For those unfamiliar with the one they call the Japanese Babe Ruth, Otani is a 23-year-old right-handed pitcher who doubles as a lefty bat. Armed with a 102-mph fastball, slider and splitter, Otani has cruised to a 42-15 record, 2.52 ERA, 1.076 WHIP and 10.3 K/9 in 543 innings in 85 games (82 starts) in five seasons with the Nippon Ham Fighters.
Ankle and thigh injuries limited him to just five starts in 2017, but Otani went 10-4 with a 1.86 ERA, 0.957 WHIP and 11.2 K/9 in 21 games (20 starts) in 2016.
As for his offensive prowess, Otani wasn’t much of a power hitter at the start of his career. That changed, however — the outfielder has added pop to contact, hitting .326 with .981 OPS and 30 dingers in 613 plate appearances over the last two years.
His numbers and unique skill set are enough to pique the interest of the Yankees — and every other team — but it is still unclear if Otani will make it to America in 2018.
The most significant obstacle standing in the way is the expiration of Major League Baseball’s player transfer agreement with Nippon Professional Baseball. The two sides are making progress on grandfathering the previous posting system for another year, according to Joel Sherman of the New York Post, but nothing is finalized as an international superstar dangles in the balance.
The two leagues will have to reach an agreement that satisfies the Fighters should Otani venture overseas. The team wants fair compensation, and rightfully so. In the past, Japanese teams have received $20 million posting fees. MLB would love to bring Otani over right away, but the league also wants to avoid rushing to create a new system based on just one player.
Should an agreement come to fruition, Otani still has to decide to leave Japan. Almost all reports indicate that’s his plan, but money could play a factor. Per MLB rules, any player under the age of 25 can only be signed with a team’s international bonus pool money. While that’s great for MLB teams trying to save money — the Yankees have about $4 million to spend and want under the $197 million luxury tax threshold — it’s a raw deal for Otani.
It’s hard to know exactly what teams would fork over, but some have estimated he would receive hundreds of millions if he were a regular free agent. All he would have to do is wait until he was 25 to leave Japan.
Still, it seems like Otani will make the change this year if MLB and NPB give him the chance. If that happens, his name should sit atop the Yankees’ wish list if it doesn’t already.
At the previously described bargain price, New York would be getting both an upgrade to its rotation and — assuming Otani keeps hitting — an added threat to a lineup in need of a DH with Matt Holliday likely leaving. It’s been reported that Otani wants to hit and pitch in the majors. With every team on a level playing field financially, any serious suitor may have to give in to those demands.
The Yankees, with their short right field porch in the Bronx, should do so happily.
On top of the cheap cost, Otani would come with team control, requiring at least two-plus years of MLB service time before becoming eligible for arbitration. With New York’s young nucleus years ahead of schedule, adding Otani could do wonders — if he’s as good as advertised — as the Yankees aim to be legitimate contenders for the next few years.
Looking at things from Otani’s point of view, the Yankees make a lot of sense for him, too.
As an American League team, the DH position would increase his chances of pitching and hitting. Playing in New York would also allow him to maximize on endorsement income both at home and abroad. He could potentially make more from that than any team’s bonus pool money.
The fact that Tanaka is staying put and Hideki Matsui works as a special advisor to the organization can’t hurt either — the Japanese star will have to adjust to America on and off the field.
There are a ton of teams that would fit Otani and vice versa, but the Yankees seem like a perfect match based on what’s known about him. New York is curious enough that general manager Brian Cashman flew to Japan to watch him pitch toward the end of the season. He never did that with Tanaka.
Of course, MLB and NPB still need to settle their differences before Otani can make any decisions about choosing a team or leaving Japan. He has hired CAA to represent him, a further sign he’s ready to make the switch, but things are still on hold.
Once that changes, however, expect the Yankees to be one of the first teams on the line.