Report: Dodgers Interested in Japanese High Schooler Shohei Otani

October 11, 2012 at 7:30 pm | Posted in Shohei Otani | Leave a comment

From MLB Trade Rumors earlier today

High school pitcher Shohei Otani, 18, is being courted by every NPB team and at least three Major League teams, reports WEEI.com’s Alex Speier.  The Red Sox, Dodgers and Rangers have all sent representatives to Japan to meet with Otani, and Gerry Fraley of the Dallas Morning News notes that the Orioles also have interest in the right-hander.

Despite his young age, Otani is already 6’4″ and 190 pounds and owns a fastball that has been clocked in the 99-100 mph range.  MLB teams wouldn’t have to pay a posting fee to sign Otani as he isn’t contracted to any Japanese pro team.

This is the first we’re hearing of this, but apparently some of the news is a few weeks old; according to  this article on JapanBall.com, Logan White met with Otani’s high school coach (though not the player himself) back on September 20. Per this report on Yakyubaka.com, Dodger scout Keiichi Kojima has been tracking Otani since he was a freshman, and White saw Otani pitch a “practice game” in March. Okay, I can’t help myself; I was just going to leave it at that because what follows is an absurd discussion to even have, but what the hell. Here’s the rest of the quote from the JapanBall story…

Flush with cash under new ownership led by Stan Kasten and fronted by former NBA star Magic Johnson, the Dodgers were the first in line to woo the teenager who White likened to the team’s Cy Young lefty Clayton Kershaw and rated as one of the best prospects in the world.

Right. So there’s that. Anyway, who is this kid? Well, here he is throwing 99 MPH in a high school game this past July, thanks to the wonderfully named “GiantRobot.com“:

As you can imagine from an 18-year-old high school kid from the Pacific Rim, there’s not a whole lot of actual scouting out there on him, and I’d be lying to you if I said that I’d heard of him before a few hours ago. Still, 18, touching triple digits. It’s enticing, to say the least.

But let’s clarify what this is and isn’t. This isn’t Daisuke Matsuzaka, who cost the Red Sox a $51.1m posting fee in 2006. This isn’t Yu Darvish, for whom the Rangers paid $51.7m last year. And he’s not Hiroki Kuroda or Takashi Saito, who came to the Dodgers with no posting fee at all. Per the rules of NBP, the major professional Japanese league, players are bound to their teams for nine years after being drafted. If they ask to play in the United States, a team may “post” them, accepting the largest blind bid from a MLB team in order to allow the player to move. In the cases of Kuroda & Saito, they had put in their nine years (or more) and didn’t come to the States until their 30s.

For Otani, it’s a little different. He’s not yet been drafted by NBP, so he’s not technically subject to the nine year rule. However, it’s excessively rare for a high school player to skip Japanese ball and go right to America. In fact, the only player I can find who has done that is Junichi Tazawa, who’s pitched in 46 games for Boston around Tommy John surgery since making his debut in 2009. (And, now that I look at it, he was outstanding this year, with a 45/5 K/BB in 44 innings.) But Tazawa’s case is unique as well, since he went undrafted by NBP out of high school and spent several seasons pitching for an unaffiliated team in Japan.

As far as I can tell, no Japanese player has ever done what Otani is suggesting, although Yusei Kikuchi went through the same process of meeting with MLB clubs before deciding to stay in Japan in 2009. Here’s where it gets sticky, however; the NBP draft is in about two weeks. Here’s a passage from a USA Today piece on Kikuchi three years ago:

Amateurs must declare for Japan’s Oct. 29 draft by Oct. 15. If Kikuchi wants to sign with a major league organization, he must convince all 12 Japanese teams not to draft him, otherwise he would face a three-year ban from Japan’s major leagues should he ever choose to return to his homeland.

Once again, the NBP draft is in late October, which means it’s about two weeks from now. If he’s drafted, MLB teams are out of luck. If he’s not, well, there’s almost no way that he wouldn’t be. And if he becomes the first high schooler to sign with an MLB team prior to that, the outcry in Japan could do such damage to the already tenuous relationship with MLB that that commissioner’s office might prefer that he just not sign here at all, as ESPN’s Keith Law alluded to.

Let’s say, for the moment, that Otani is able to come to America. This won’t be a Yasiel Puig situation, where teams outbid each other to throw millions at an international free agent. Part of the reason that Puig received so much is that he signed just before the deadline where the new CBA would take effect and limit international spending. For the 2012-13 period, which I believe runs through June 30, 2013, all teams have $2.9m to spend on international free agents. (Which is beyond stupid, but that’s a different conversation.) After that, each team will have a pool ranging from about $1.7m to $4.8m, based on winning percentage in the previous season. Teams can go over, but the penalties are strict.

Every team has signed international free agents already, so no one has the full $2.9m remaining. I can’t find up-to-date budget figures as to what everyone has left this year, but it almost doesn’t matter, because it’s such a small figure. So if Otani can come to America, it’s not going to be for a massive up-front payment like we’ve seen in the past.

So if it’s not just about money… well, perhaps that puts the Dodgers in a good position. With the team history of Hideo Nomo, Kuroda, Saito, and others, Los Angeles has a great history with Japanese players. Then again, that advantage isn’t what it once was, and the Dodgers don’t currently have any Japanese on the club. Texas has Darvish, a huge star there; in recent years the Yankees, Mariners, & Red Sox have all hosted Japanese superstars.

This very well could be much ado about nothing, since as Law notes, I tend to lean towards Otani not being allowed to come to America. Still, we’ve talked a lot around here about how awful the Dodger record was in international spending during the McCourt years, a concern which we’re seeing manifest itself at the major league level. Adding a player who appears to be a great talent – again, based off of the little knowledge we have, though the fact that the Dodgers have apparently been following him for years is encouraging – would certainly be, along with Puig, a great step in the right direction as far as living up to Stan Kasten’s claim that investing in the farm system is of paramount importance.

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