The world of possibly available international baseball players is fascinating. These days, fans know about the most talented players abroad far earlier than they used to. I was not all that familiar with Hideki Matsui before he signed with the Yankees during the 2002-03 off-season. I had heard some rumors about a great slugger in Japan who might be interested in playing for the Yankees after his contract expired, and by November, many Yankees fans knew him. Contrast that to Yu Darvish and Masahiro Tanaka, who countless baseball fans knew about at least a season before each was posted by their NPB teams. The conclusions of the hunts for international talent are as exciting as what comes almost immediately after the players sign MLB contracts: the search for "the next one."
The most immediate "next one" might be Hiroshima Toya Carp ace Kenta Maeda, who will be eligible to be posted after the 2014 season. However, perhaps the most exciting young player in the NPB is a 19-year-old kid who was born three days before Alex Rodriguez made his major league debut. His name is Shohei Otani, and he nearly made the decision to come stateside already back in 2012.
After finishing up at Hanamaki Higashi High School, the 6'4" righthander who dominated opponents and appeared in the 18U World Championships announced that he would bypass the NPB and go straight to MLB by signing as an international player. The Yankees and several other teams were interested in Otani's dynamic arm, which features a mix of pitches highlighted by a blazing fastball that hovers in the mid-90s and has reached 98 mph. Otani requested that no NPB teams draft him, but the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters decided to chance it and select him first overall in the 2013 draft anyway. Due to a recent NPB rule that was enacted when Red Sox reliever Junichi Tazawa bolted from his Japanese high school to Boston on a three-year contract without playing any NPB ball, Otani would thus be banned from playing in the NPB for three years if he went stateside. He could have gone anyway, but he ultimately was convinced by Nippon Ham to sign with them instead for the equivalent of a $1.2 million bonus and the maximum rookie salary of $150,000.
Another factor in Otani's decision was that Nippon Ham would let Otani both pitch and play the outfield on most days he doesn't pitch, a la Babe Ruth in his last couple years with the Red Sox. It's unlikely that American teams would have let him do this, and since he was just 18, he probably would have been stuck grinding it out in the low minors for a couple years, as noted by Yakyu Night Owl. He'd likely be making more than he is receiving in Japan, but perhaps Otani is setting him up for an even bigger pay day a little ways down the road.
Otani's first season in Japan was modest. He played 54 games in the outfield and and in 13 on the mound, making 11 starts. He hit a quiet .238/.284/.376 with 15 doubles and three homers in 204 plate appearances, and he pitched to a 4.23 ERA with a 4.8 BB/9, though he did reach the league average of 6.7 K/9 as a mere 18-year old. Now a sophomore in 2014, Otani has gotten off to a superb start. He's a much improved hitter at the plate, batting .283/.343/.457 with 11 extra-base hits in 102 plate appearances (compared to the league average of .256/.323/.379), and he's been even better on the mound.
In nine starts, Otani has pitched to a 3.13 ERA, 2.8 BB/9, and a 9.7 K/9. He hurled his first career shutout on May 13th, striking out nine Seibu Lions and allowing only six hits on 126 pitches. Otani also caught Baseball America writer Ben Badler's eye with a scintillating face-off against the aforementioned Maeda on June 4th. Although it was abbreviated since Otani had to leave with a sprained ankle while sliding into home plate, Otani was sensational. In just five innings and 71 pitches, he struck out 10 Hiroshima Toya Carp, didn't walk anyone, and allowed just one run on three hits. Here's a little of what Badler had to say:
Otani’s fastball was overpowering, sitting at 94-98 mph and hitting the upper end of that range consistently. His lone run allowed came on a hanging slider to Brad Eldred, who crushed Otani’s mistake for a home run. Otani, who’s 6-foot-4, 190 pounds, overmatched hitters with his fastball, though his 84-88 mph splitter was a solid pitch at times. He also throws a 78-81 mph slider and a curveball that he manipulates speeds on, ranging anywhere from the mid-60s to the mid-70s.
Badler also included a video of Otani striking out a better while reaching 99 mph:
Shohei Otani dominant again today. Fastball sat 96-98 mph, cracked 99. Still 19 years old.— Ben Badler (@BenBadler) June 11, 2014
Crazy. It will obviously be some time before Otani can actually be posted, as both Tanaka and Darvish pitched seven seasons in Japan before reaching eligibility for posting. Based on the new posting system, Nippon Ham might even want to wait longer before posting him. Using the initial seven-year guideline though, he can't possibly pitch in the majors until 2020, which is so far away that among Yankees, only Tanaka and Jacoby Ellsbury are under contract for then at this point. (Irrelevant, but Miguel Cabrera will still be owed at least $124 million for four more years by the Tigers. Lol.)
So much can happen between now and then that could render Otani irrelevant. He could blow his arm out while young like David Clyde or Mark Prior and basically never be heard from again, though I suppose like Rick Ankiel, he could try to convert to a career as an outfielder given his decent hitting talents. Nonetheless, it's fun to look down the road to a prodigy who could dominate the majors several years from now. Here's hoping Otani stays healthy and the Yankees can pick him up so that I can celebrate my 30th birthday by watching an Otani shutout.