Japanese star Shohei Otani (sometimes spelled Ohtani) is unique in modern baseball. A star pitcher, he also serves as a designated hitter on days he’s not pitching, and he’s really good at both.
Early Friday, Otani’s team in Nippon Pro Baseball (NPB) announced that he would be available to MLB teams through the posting system. That system, where any MLB team that wants to negotiate with a posted player would agree to pay his NPB team $20 million, recently expired, but is expected to be extended.
Because Otani is 23, he is subject to new international signing rules that treat anyone under 25 the same way; teams are restricted in how much they can pay an under-25 player by how much they have available in their international bonus pool.
And this is one reason why Otani isn’t likely coming to the Cubs. Here are the bonus pools available now for all 30 teams:
Texas Rangers — $3,535,000
New York Yankees — $3,250,000
Minnesota Twins — $3,245,000
Pittsburgh Pirates — $2,266,750
Miami Marlins — $1,740,000
Seattle Mariners — $1,570,500
Philadelphia Phillies — $900,000
Milwaukee Brewers — $765,000
Arizona Diamondbacks — $731,250
Baltimore Orioles — $660,000
Boston Red Sox — $462,000
Tampa Bay Rays — $440,500
Atlanta Braves – $300,000
Chicago Cubs – $300,000
Chicago White Sox – $300,000
Cincinnati Reds – $300,000
Houston Astros – $300,000
Kansas City Royals – $300,000
Los Angeles Dodgers – $300,000
Oakland Athletics – $300,000
St. Louis Cardinals – $300,000
San Diego Padres – $300,000
San Francisco Giants – $300,000
Washington Nationals – $300,000
Detroit Tigers — $159,500
Los Angeles Angels — $150,000
New York Mets — $150,000
Toronto Blue Jays — $50,000
Cleveland Indians — $10,000
Colorado Rockies — $10,000
Of course, Otani could sign a short-term deal with any team, then get a contract extension later that would presumably pay him what he’s really worth in the open market.
But beyond the Cubs’ limitation in what they can spend in the international bonus pool market, there’s another reason Otani is likely headed elsewhere: The National League’s lack of a designated hitter.
Here’s Otani’s playing record in NPB. You can see he did play a few games in the outfield when he first began in NPB, but has not played any fielding position but pitcher for the last three seasons. He’s not likely to play in the field apart from pitching in MLB, and the Cubs already have an outfielder who’s really better suited to be a DH.
Here’s what Otani said when asked about hitting and pitching in coming to MLB:
He said during Saturday's news conference that he hopes to be able to continue both batting and pitching.
"Just before I turned professional, I didn't imagine I would be able to do both," Otani said. "But since then, the fans have encouraged it, the coaches helped me, and manager (Hideki) Kuriyama made it possible. That has left me with a strong desire, to keep doing it, not only for me, but for them."
"I don't know if it will be possible, but I want to hear what teams over there say and what kind of situations might be available. Until that process has started, I can't say how it might work out."
He certainly is talented enough to do both. His 2017 season was slowed by an ankle injury, but even so in 65 games as a hitter he hit .332/.403/.540 with eight home runs in 202 at-bats. Overall as a NPB hitter: .286/.358/.500 with 48 home runs in 1,035 at-bats, and as a pitcher: 42-15, 2.52 ERA, 1.076 WHIP, 624 strikeouts in 543 innings.
Those numbers should be regarded with caution. Almost every NPB player — pitcher or hitter — has failed to match his numbers in Japan when coming to MLB.
Here are some Otani pitching and hitting highlights, which include a home run he hit actually through the roof at the Tokyo Dome during the World Baseball Classic last March:
Otani could be an outlier, like Ichiro Suzuki or Hideki Matsui, players who were stars on both sides of the Pacific. He could wind up concentrating solely on pitching. But with the Cubs, at least for now, really all he could be as a hitter is a pinch-hitter on days he didn’t pitch. If he’s really serious about doing both, and a team signing him is willing, he’s much more likely to go to an American League club.
The Texas Rangers, as noted above, can offer him the most money. But the Rangers have a full-time DH, Shin-Soo Choo, who is under contract for three more seasons.
It’ll be interesting. Otani will have several choices to make, not only of which team he thinks it’s best to play for regarding two-way play, but also choosing a city he feels comfortable with and an organization where he’d be a good fit.
It just doesn’t seem like that team would be the Cubs. Perhaps I’m wrong; if Otani is anywhere near the pitcher he was in Japan after coming to MLB, he’d certainly fill a Cubs need. It just seems more likely he’d go to an A.L. club that would at least be able to offer him some time at designated hitter.