What Toronto baseball fans need to know about Shohei Otani, the Japanese phenom who might become a Blue Jay

What Toronto baseball fans need to know about Shohei Otani, the Japanese phenom who might become a Blue Jay

One of the most important players to be aware of during this year’s baseball offseason is Shohei Otani, a 23-year-old Japanese phenom who’s being touted as the modern-day Babe Ruth because of his two-pronged talent: he can throw 100 miles per hour as a pitcher, but he can also launch 500-foot home runs. Any team would be elated to have that kind of ability on one side of the ball, let alone both.

Photograph by Ship1231/Wikimedia Commons

After five seasons in Nippon Professional Baseball in Japan, where he regularly plays as both a pitcher and hitter for his team, the Nippon-Ham Fighters, Otani is poised to make the leap to Major League Baseball. The Blue Jays are rumoured to be among his fiercest suitors, as the MLB’s trading season heats up.

Here’s what Jays fans need to know.


Whatever happens, Otani will be criminally underpaid

There are several hoops Otani has to jump through before coming to the major leagues. He has already cleared the first of them: the Nippon-Ham Fighters have officially posted him, which makes him a free agent. Any major league team that wants to hire Otani will have to pay a posting fee to the Nippon-Ham Fighters to release him from his current contract. That fee is rumoured to be close to $20 million.

But that’s not the end of Otani’s money problems. Because he’s only 23 years old, he can’t sign a typical free-agent contract. Instead, his deal will be treated like a minor league contract. He won’t make much up front, so the bulk of his earnings will be through signing bonuses—but he’ll only be eligible to receive up to a maximum of $3.535 million worth of those.

Those restrictions immediately go away for players 25 and older, at which point a player of Otani’s calibre might fetch up to $200 million. Even a measly few million might look pretty good to him, though: in Japan, he made a modest $2.5 million in 2017. Regardless of how much he makes in North America, though, he’ll be getting something that no amount of money can buy: the chance to compete against the best baseball players in the world (and possibly win a World Series) while still in his early twenties.

The Jays aren’t new at this…

When Alex Anthopoulos took over as general manager of the Blue Jays in October 2009, the organization started to focus on recruiting international free agents, which included expanding scouting efforts overseas into Japan. For many years now, the Blue Jays have been working to discover the next big thing. Back in December of 2011, the team was rumoured to be one of the favourites to land Yu Darvish, another huge Japanese talent. (He happened to play for Otani’s current team, the Fighters.) In the end, the Texas Rangers had the winning bid. We still don’t know how much the Jays offered for Darvish, or if they made any offer at all. This remains one of the biggest mysteries of the Anthopoulos era.

…And they’re already scouting Otani aggressively

The Blue Jays have been scouting Otani for a very long time, and the team appears to have watched him especially closely this past season. Jim Duquette, of MLB Network Radio, told the Jeff Blair Show that “Toronto saw most of [Otani’s] starts over the last year and a half,” meaning the team has had a member of its scouting staff in the stands in Japan.

The Blue Jays can make a compelling case

The amount of effort being made by the Blue Jays’ front office could prove to be the deciding factor for a player like Otani. He can’t command huge sums of money, so he may end up choosing an MLB team on the basis of fit.

Otani likes to pitch and hit, but some clubs would balk at the prospect of having their prized pitching possession swing a bat. The Blue Jays could let him DH on the days when he doesn’t take the mound, because the team has the roster space. Also, the club happens to have a few outfield vacancies entering the 2018 season, which means Otani could play the field on his non-pitching days. On the administrative side of things, the signals are positive. Jays GM Ross Atkins told reporters the club is “extremely prepared” for its pitch to Otani, whatever that means.

The Jays may have a shot, but they’re far from a lock

Toronto may have some goodies to offer Otani, but it doesn’t have the profligacy of teams like the Dodgers, Yankees or Red Sox, any of which could offer him more earning potential down the road, after his paycheque is no longer artificially restricted. They could also offer him a more consistent track record of success. Despite consecutive trips to the postseason in 2015 and 2016, the Blue Jays haven’t been to the World Series since 1993.