Is September 13th the earliest the hot stove has ever been fired up? We have about a month and a half left of baseball, including the playoffs, and at the moment the biggest story in the game is an international free agent. Granted this is no average international free agent, it’s Shohei Otani, the 23 year old pitcher/outfielder/designated hitter, described by many as the Japanese Babe Ruth. In my opinion that’s a bit hyperbolic, he’s neither fat nor drunk, and his home run trot isn’t a full on shuffle. Do you people even know who Babe Ruth is? I scoff at you! All joking aside, with the rumor coming out of Japan yesterday that Otani will in fact enter the posting process, the offseason has unofficially started. Over the course of today’s post we’ll go over my novice take on the business side of his signing, and the MLB roster rules governing his free agency, his profile as both a hitter and starter, and we’ll close with a very early prediction of his pre-season ranking in both re-draft leagues, and dynasty first year player drafts. It’s important to view this from all angles, as there’s a wide range of possibilities for how Otani is handled next season by his future MLB team, the league, and fantasy sites. If there’s anything I missed or explained poorly (probably haha) hit me up in the comments, and set me straight. I promise I won’t bite… this time.
Despite the recently enacted CBA putting restrictions on the amount of money allotted to international free agents under the age of 25. Otani has chosen to put off a potential nine figure pay day to head stateside for 2018. This mean’s Otani will be subject to the posting system which caps posting fees rewarded to his current team, the Nippon Ham Fighters, at $20 million. Unlike the process at the time of Daisuke Matsuzaka, there’s no battle for highest bidder, leaving much of the choice in the hands of Otani, and not his soon to be former club. Ultimatley Otani’s choice will boil down to two things, where he wants to play, and what team has the most available international bonus pool bucks. As for the latter there’s 5 teams with bonus pools of $5.75 million to spend without restrictions on per player spending. Each of those teams can acquire more pool money, but cannot exceed $10.1 million in bonus pool cash. The full bonus pool group is comprised of the Arizona Diamondbacks, Baltimore Orioles, Cleveland Indians, Colorado Rockies, and Pittsburgh Pirates, but no one in that group at this time is amongst the front runners for Otani’s services. From all reports the New York Yankees, Seattle Mariners, and Texas Rangers appear to be in the early lead, all with a pool of $4.75 million with the ability to push that number to $8.3 million through traded bonus money. The Boston Red Sox, Miami Marlins, Twins, Brewers, Rays, White Sox, Tigers, Angels, Mets, Phillies, and Blue Jays all have bonus pools between $5.25 million and $4.75 million with the ability to acquire more, and allot it to a single player. So those are the players.
We’ll discuss Otani’s abilities and potential fantasy impact in the next few paragraphs, but I wanted to mention just how much of a potential deal this is for any team that signs Otani. Not only will he come for no more than a $30 million dollar investment up front, he’s going to go through the arbitration process. This means he’ll be on a baseline salary for at least his first three years of MLB service time. As Jeff Passan astutely pointed out in his Yahoo post yesterday, it’s obviously about more than the money to Otani. Maybe I’m jumping to conclusions here, but that speaks volumes about his competitiveness. He’s willing to forego 100’s of millions initially to get his first taste of the best league in the world, vs waiting two years and maximizing his return in 2020.
Young, talented, cheap, controllable, and hungry; this makes the two way star the score of the century for whatever team signs him. Oh, and by the way, he can play two positions so well that he’s going to potentially save you a roster spot. Meaning you can carry an extra bat or pen arm if you feel so inclined. We’re truly talking about a game changer here. This leads me to my next point, if Otani is successful as a two way contributor does that open the door for players like Brendan McKay, Hunter Greene, and a host of others to pursue the same role? Perhaps, but time and Otani’s performance will tell. It’s certainly an exciting trend bubbling under the surface of baseball currently.
As for Otani the player, or perhaps better said players, you’re looking at a unique talent on both sides of the ball. As a pitcher Otani has been described by some as one of the top 5-10 arms in the world. Getting “ace” labels from several unanimous scouts quoted all over the internet. His arsenal is comprised of a 5 pitch mix led by his 80 grade fastball that has been clocked as high as 102, but mostly sits 97-100 MPH with late life and elite command. His secondaries are led by a splitter (swoon) that sits 88-92 with nasty diving action, giving him a classic swing and miss out pitch. Some have gone on record saying the splitter is better than compatriot Masahiro Tanaka’s, and that’s lofty praise. His slider also earns plus and plus-plus grades, and is reported to have two variations, one that’s more like a classic sweeping hard slider with tilt, and another version with more cutter type shape with shorter break. Both are clocked in the low to mid 80’s sitting 82-87, giving him nice separation between his fastball and splitter, his most frequently used offerings. His arsenal is rounded out by an average curveball, and reported changeup.
Now to address two of the bigger question marks attached to any Japanese pitching import. Can his arm handle the innings, and does he tend to nibble, driving up his pitch counts (i.e: see Darvish, Yu)? Despite a somewhat injury marred year in 2017 Otani has been viewed as handled with kids gloves by his current team the Nippon Ham Fighters. Unlike other recent successful imports Masahiro Tanaka, Yu Darvish, and Kenta Maeda, Otani has yet to exceed 160 innings in a season. While the aforementioned trio all had several 200+ innings campaigns prior to coming stateside. The thought within the baseball world was, this is a case of the team viewing Otani as an asset and trying to protect his arm, and value long term. As for the latter question of potential nibbling, I’ve been told he’s an aggressive power pitcher, going right at hitters, and rarely driving up his pitch counts.
While on the other side of the ball, Otani the lefthanded power hitter has been comped by some to Curtis Granderson, an athletic power hitter, with swing and miss concerns. Scouts have put 70’s on his raw power and 60’s on his game speed, that’s an exciting profile for any potential hitting prospect. Despite the high strikeout totals in Japan he’s not a hack at the plate, showing a patient approach, and ability to work counts, and find his pitch.
So to summarize he’s an above average hitter, but an absolute stud on the mound. Leading to by far the biggest question attached to Otani’s future; “What will his offensive role be?” I’m going to start this by saying, I don’t see him playing in the outfield (or DHing) everyday while acting as the team’s closer. Which has been suggested by some over the last 6 months. Starting pitching, and elite starting pitching at that, is so hard to come by. So in my opinion no team is going to let that slip by. Unless Otani insists of course, but I don’t see that happening either. The best case scenario is he signs with a good AL team, with a strong lineup, in a good ballpark (Yankees anyone), they make him part of a six man rotation, and DH him 3-4 times a week, with him seeing at bats in lieu of a DH in his starts. I reached out to Fantrax regarding how they would handle a player who sees 150+ innings on the mound, and 300+ PA. I’m yet to hear back, but I think there’s really only two options. The first, he’s a player listed with pitching and hitting eligibility you could only use for one or the other on a given day. Or there’s two Otanis available in the player pool. One being Otani the pitcher, and the other being Otani the hitter. Personally this is the option I prefer. Why? Because for all intents and purposes he is in fact two separate fantasy players. This hypothetical option could also lead to some fun scenarios, Otani for Otani trades, people drafting Otani the hitter by accident etc. I like quirky stuff like that in my fantasy leagues, mostly because it causes you to think.
Now for the only part of this post I’m actually paid to write about, his fantasy value! First for the easy question, yes, he’s undoubtedly number one in any first year player draft. He’s a supposed ace with the ability to step into the role from April on. I guess that means I view the bat as gravy in a one Otani in the player pool scenario. If we’re going with two in the pool, I’d take Otani the pitcher number one in first year player drafts, and would take Otani the hitter somewhere outside the top 5, but definitely in the 6-12 range of any FYPD. As for his 2018 redraft value as a starter only, I view him as having draft stock equal to someone like Gerrit Cole for next year. We know the talent’s there but there’s some uncertainty leading to me not fully committing to the ace grade. If he were to be a single player with two way starting eligibility he becomes a very intriguing and risky pick in round 3-4 for me. Maybe that’s aggressive but the upside justifies it. However it’s tough to value that kind of asset as it’s something we’ve never seen in our virtual game.
In closing it’s going to be an interesting off-season, with a potential new wrinkle to our game coming. Get excited y’all!