Japanese right-handed pitching phenom Shohei Otani announced Sunday that he will forego the Japanese baseball draft to pursue his baseball career in America. Will the Rays be interested?
Otani, 18, is a 6’4″, 189 right-handed pitcher at Hanamaki Higashi High School in Iwate Prefecture in Japan and a big-time prospect. Otani throws a low- to mid-90’s fastball that has touched as high as 99 MPH in the past. It has shown great sink at times when he has been able to get on top of it. Otani complements it with two secondary pitches, a mid-80’s slider and a high-70’s curveball. The slider flashes devastating tight break when he gets it out of the same arm slot as his fastball while the curveball features big knee-buckling break when it’s on and is a huge change of pace from his other pitches. Otani’s major issue right now is command, especially of his fastball, as he leaves way too many pitches up in the zone, but with further development he has the ability to be a true number one starter.
Otani is undeniably a great prospect, albeit one with quite a bit of risk, and the Rays’ scouts have evaluated him as highly as anyone. The Rays’ Director of Far East Scouting, Tim Ireland, compared Otani to a young Felix Hernandez. But are the Rays actually a candidate to sign Otani?
For those among us who have followed the Rays since before their inception, this has to remind of the Matt White disaster. Back in 1996, White was another highly-touted draft prospect who became a free agent, and the Devil Rays won a bidding war to sign him, giving him a 10.2 million dolar contract. White was a great prospect, but injuries doomed his career as he never played a single major league game. Why would the Rays want to get into another bidding war over a promising but risky prospect when they can ill-afford to see that money go to waste?
The good news regarding Otani is that there will not be another Matt White situation with him. Because he never was a professional in Japan, Otani is subject to the international amateur free agent rules of the new MLB collective bargaining agreement. Per the new CBA, each team has only 2.9 million dollars to spend on international amateur free agents, so the bidding for Otani will not get above that 2.9 million dollar margin. Considering no team will want to spend their entire allotment for international free agents on just Otani, no team may commit more than 2 to 2.5 million dollars, something the Rays would be more than willing to spend. In reality, the bidding for Otani might be less about money and more about teams convincing Otani that their organization is the best fit for him. The Rays have an awfully good case, maybe the best in baseball. Their track record for developing young pitchers as unparalleled over the past few years and also they have proved that they are willing to trade away a major league starting pitcher if they believe a pitching prospect is ready for the major leagues, as evidenced by the Matt Garza trade that gave Jeremy Hellickson a rotation spot. The Rays aren’t going to view Otani as any sort of savior- but they’re going to give him the opportunity to take it slow through the minor leagues and develop into the best major league pitcher he can possibly be. The Rays haven’t really been mentioned as a suitor for Otani so far, but if they consider Otani a promising enough prospect, they will put up the money and do everything they can to convince Otani that they are the best organization for him to sign with in order to pursue his dream of pitching in the major leagues.