With just a few hours to spare before a self-imposed deadline Tuesday night, Major League Baseball, the Major League Baseball Players Association and Nippon Pro Baseball (NPB) came to an agreement that will allow the system of “posting” NPB players so they can play for MLB teams.
Obviously, the urgency behind revising this system was the interest of Japanese star pitcher/hitter Shohei Ohtani in coming to MLB for the 2018 season, and the great interest from many MLB teams in signing him.
(Incidentally, I have decided to change the way I spell his name from “Otani” to “Ohtani” to reflect the way it is spelled not only in most articles I’ve read, but to match what’s on his Japanese jersey.)
The posting agreement runs through Oct. 31, 2021, meaning it will continue for the length of baseball's current Collective Bargaining Agreement. In some cases, the new provisions won't take effect immediately. For example, the Fighters will be awarded a $20 million posting fee in exchange for transferring Ohtani's rights, the maximum allowed under the previous posting agreement. In future years, NPB clubs will receive release fees according to the amount of guaranteed money in the player's initial MLB contract: 20 percent of the first $25 million, 17.5 percent of the next $25 million, and 15 percent on all amounts above $50 million.
So, essentially the previous agreement was extended for one more offseason and the new provisions will take effect next winter.
I wrote earlier this month that it didn’t seem likely that Ohtani would sign with the Cubs, primarily because they didn’t have a lot of money in their international bonus pool at this time, but also because of Ohtani’s expressed desire to both pitch as well as be a more-or-less fulltime hitter in MLB. That would mean he’d likely be a DH when he’s not pitching, and the Cubs (and other National League teams) can’t offer that. You might say: “Ohtani could play the outfield!” and you’d be... sort of right. While he has played outfield in the past, but as you can see on his baseball-reference page, he hasn’t played a single game in the field other than at pitcher since 2014.
There is, however, a school of thought that the bonus pool thing won’t mean all that much when it comes to Ohtani and his choice of MLB team. Since he has to sign a minor-league contract and play for the minimum salary, at least at first, the amount he’s offered as a signing bonus might not be as important to him as you might think, at least according to David Schoenfield at ESPN.com:
Ohtani isn’t motivated by money. The difference between a $3.5 million bonus and $300,000 bonus isn’t likely to be a critical factor in where he signs. He has repeatedly stressed the desire to test himself against the best competition, and that’s why he wants to come over now rather than wait. What we don’t know is how important is his desire to remain a two-way player.
The logical follow-up question: What would prevent a team from an under-the-table agreement with Ohtani? Say, you give him the maximum signing bonus, and then two months into his rookie season, sign him to a seven-year, $125 million extension or something? The answer: I don’t know, although that is something MLB would clearly frown upon. Given the penalties just handed down on the Braves for their shenanigans in Latin America, any subterfuge with Ohtani could face severe consequences. Any extension would probably have to fall in line with those signed by similar players with limited major league experience -- in other words, far below $200 million.
There’s no doubt in my mind that the penalties the Braves received were meant, at least in part, to send a message to the other 29 teams: “Don’t try this.” Schoenfield named nine teams he thought would have the best chance to sign Ohtani — and one of them was the Cubs:
With Jake Arrieta and John Lackey free agents, they’ll be signing somebody. Theo Epstein did a great job wooing Jon Lester before the 2015 season. Now that the Cubs are annual playoff participants, wooing Ohtani might be easier.
That would appear to assume that if Ohtani did sign with the Cubs, he’d be signing primarily to pitch, and perhaps be used as a pinch-hitter some of the time, maybe a DH when the Cubs play their 10 annual games in an American League park.
In the end, I still think Ohtani winds up with an A.L. team. But I do think the door is open, just a little, for him to become a Chicago Cub in 2018.