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Signing Shohei Otani may be an attainable dream for the Milwaukee Brewers

The new hard caps in the CBA put every team on roughly even footing when it comes to signing international free agents.

Japan v Netherlands - International Friendly Photo by Masterpress/Getty Images

Shohei Otani is the most exciting international player in the world. There’s really nothing to debate about that statement. Last season for the Japanese Nippon Ham Fighters, at age 21 in what is generally considered the world’s top professional league outside of the MLB, Otani authored a 1.86 ERA across 140.0 innings pitched with 11.2 K/9, 2.9 BB/9, and a 0.957 WHIP. According to a scouting report from 2080 Baseball, he throws an ‘80’ grade fastball that sits 93-97 MPH and touches triple digits with “plus late life.” He also mixes in an upper-70s curveball (50 present/60 future), a mid-80s slider (45 present/55 future), and a splitter that tops at at 91 MPH and is his “go-to secondary for strikes.” Otani is still working to refine his command (40 present/future 60) but evaluator Dave DeFreitas gives him an overall ceiling of 70, that of a future #1 or #2 starter:

Top-of-rotation guy with smooth, easy mechanics; has a chance for plus command of three plus pitches. Double-plus athlete that is still growing into his body and developing coordination. Has the makeup to go with the advanced skill set. Aggressive, will challenge; pounds the zone and locates to all quadrants with plus ability to put hitters away.

Otani would already be considered one of, if not the #1, MLB top prospect if he were in the minor leagues with just that pitching profile. However, Otani can hit a little, too. In 382 plate appearances for the Fighters in 2016, Shohei logged a .322/.416/.588 slash line with 22 home runs. He did strike out in nearly 26% of his plate appearances and has a fair amount of swing-and-miss in his game, though he does generate above-average bat speed and can get to a fringe-average 45 hit grade down the road. He has plus raw power, mostly to his pull side, and reportedly has the potential for above-average in game power as he grows into his body and improves his approach at the plate. He’s a 70 runner who stole 7 bases in Japan last season and according to DeFreitas, has been clocked as fast as 3.88 seconds from home plate to first base. Otani has appeared briefly in the outfield during his Japanese baseball career, but his speed and plus-plus arm should help him profile as an above-average defender in right field.

So highly thought of was Otani as an amateur that he considered skipping the Nippon Professional Baseball Organizational altogether and coming straight to the United States as an 18 year old. The Fighters, however, lured him to stay in Japan by offering him the opportunity to be featured as a two-way player, pitching in the starting rotation while often serving as the designated hitter (or, less frequently, a starting outfielder) in between starts. Five seasons after debuting in the NPB, the league’s reigning Most Valuable Player is ready to make the jump to the MLB, but only for a team that is willing to give him a shot as both a pitcher and hitter.

Under the old rules governing international signees, Otani would have stood to become an outrageously wealthy man by coming to the United States. He’ll turn 23 on July 5th of this year, and as a player aged 23 or older with experience in a professional league recognized by the commissioner, Otani would not have been subject to signing restrictions. Sure, a team would have had to pay a maximum $20 mil fee to the Fighters in order to negotiate with Otani, but given his age and skillset, there’s little doubt he would have been able to secure a nine-figure contract. Some have speculated he could have even fetched $200 mil or more on the open market.

With the latest Collective Bargaining Agreement now in place, however, Otani’s earning capacity is significantly compromised. The age threshold for players considered to be “amateurs” has been raised from 23 to 25. Hard caps on international spending are now in place for all 30 big league teams, ranging from just $4.75 mil to $5.75 mil. For what it’s worth, Otani (who is considered to be a good makeup, high character guy that doesn’t drink) has earned a good amount of money during his time in Japan from both his contract and endorsement deals, and he doesn’t seem phased by the restrictions on his earning potential:

“Personally, I don’t care how much I get paid, or how much less I get paid, because of this.”

Now, Otani could simply wait a couple of seasons to come stateside and still be able to secure a mega-contract. On coming to the United States this winter, he says “nothing is for certain.” But the Fighters are indeed planning on posting him during the upcoming offseason, seemingly setting in motion the process for him to join a Major League Baseball organization for the 2018 season.

For the Milwaukee Brewers, signing a player of this caliber was once almost a laughable dream. It was considered “breaking the bank” when our small-market local nine shelled out $3.2 mil to sign Gilbert Lara in 2014; even when the franchise was willing to blow past their bonus pool in an attempt to sign Yoan Moncada, offering him something in the range of a $12 mil guarantee (which would have incurred a 100% overage tax under the old rules), they couldn’t even get halfway to the $31.5 mil bonus (and subsequent 100% penalty) that the Red Sox shelled out to bring Moncada into the fold.

Under the new rules, however, just about every team is on even footing when it comes to how much they can offer Otani. Teams are allowed to increase their bonus allotment by up to 75% through trades, so the Brewers, who will have a $5.25 mil pool to work with when the new international signing period begins on July 2nd, could boost their allotted amount to nearly $9.2 mil (the maximum amount any hypothetical team would be allowed is a hair over $10 mil). This contract would come in the form of a minor league deal with a signing bonus, though Otani would surely be added to any 40 man roster as soon as the 2018 season begins. Still, he would have to then accrue another 6 years of MLB service time before becoming eligible for free agency, as any player who comes up through the minor leagues does.

Objectively, Otani would be a better fit in the American League, where he could serve as a DH when not pitching. He doesn’t appear to have an early preference regarding which league or city he plays in, however:

“I actually need to learn more about MLB...There’s good to both (leagues); it’s very hard to choose at this point.”

That means as long as the Brewers are willing to give Otani some reps in the outfield, the dream of signing him to play in Milwaukee can remain alive. It would take only a modest commitment to bring Otani into the fold when compared to a typical free agent expenditure; the $20 mil posting fee plus a $9.2 mil signing bonus would be slightly less than the team guaranteed to Kyle Lohse in 2013, for example. The biggest hurdle will be to convince the superstar that Milwaukee is as desirable a locale as somewhere like New York or Los Angeles.

There may be some loopholes in the CBA that allow for Otani to sign a deal making him a free agent before the requisite 6 years of MLB service (similar to the deal signed by Nori Aoki, for example), but that remains to be sorted out. For now, though, Shohei Otani is an attainable dream for the small-market Milwaukee Brewers thanks to the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, though the cost of “competitive balance” comes at a tremendous price for the player involved.

Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference