The mystery of Shohei Otani and whether he'll leave $200M on the table to play in MLB

Jeff Passan
MLB columnist
Most people think Shohei Otani will want to play as both a pitcher and a hitter in MLB. (Getty)

Earlier this year, a National League general manager tasked a few trusted employees with a secret mission: Find out everything you can about Shohei Otani. One of the employees came back a few days later with some sparse details but a useful nugget of information: If Otani really does bring his 102-mph fastball and powerful bat to Major League Baseball from Japan during the upcoming winter, he wants to play for a big-market team with a large Japanese population. A few days after that, another of the employees delivered what he thought was some solid dope: When Otani does reach the major leagues, he really would love to head to a small market, blend in and avoid any more distractions than the ones inherent in his arrival.

The GM laughed. He doesn’t know if it’s intentional subterfuge, tongue-in-cheek trolling or out-of-the-loop sources trying to pass themselves off as in-the-know insiders, but his experience with Otani matches that of four other GMs who spoke with Yahoo Sports about the 22-year-old and said variations of the same thing: They have absolutely no idea what’s going on with him.

One scout is convinced the Texas Rangers are the favorites for Otani. Another GM believes the same – though he heard Otani might prefer the Los Angeles Dodgers. And then there are the San Diego Padres, who have a partnership with Otani’s Japanese team and hired a former strength coach of his in a prominent role. Don’t forget the New York Yankees and Chicago Cubs and San Francisco Giants and Houston Astros and others lurking, waiting, wondering whether their recon might be the difference between landing Otani and losing him.

That Otani is shrouded in mystery is only appropriate, seeing as his legend has grown to proportions in which even myths wouldn’t dare traffic. The fastball. The home runs. The legitimate possibility of a two-way player better than anyone since the person to whom Otani is most often compared – only Babe Ruth, the greatest baseball player ever. All of it creates this mania through which teams try to sift and find the truth.

Each wants to answer the same three questions. First: Is Otani coming to MLB after the 2017 season? On this, there is significant skepticism, and it stems from a second question, which might be even more important than the first.

Is Shohei Otani really willing to give up $200 million?

To understand how that’s possible, flash back to the winter, when MLB was negotiating a new collective-bargaining agreement with the MLB Players Association. Teams wanted to rein in spending, particularly on Cuban players, on whom they had lavished more than $800 million guaranteed over the previous decade. Much of the union’s rank-and-file, it turned out, was similarly chapped over the money handed to Cubans, a curious position but one staked nonetheless.

The compromise overhauled the international system, not only placing a hard cap on teams’ abilities to spend but neutering the market for young, international talent. In the past, international spending limits vanished once a player reached 23 years old. The new basic agreement bumped that to 25 – and, in the process, left Otani facing one whopper of a choice: Does he come to MLB after the 2017 or ’18 seasons and subject himself to a maximum signing bonus of $10.1 million, or does he wait until his 25th birthday in 2019, try to win another championship or two with the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters and come stateside with unlimited earning potential?

The general consensus among the GMs pegged market value for a 23-year-old starting pitcher with an elite fastball and elite splitter, plus a curveball and a slider that flash great now and again, and, oh, by the way, a bat that OPS’d over 1.000 last season, at $200 million minimum. Provided he stays healthy – Otani has yet to pitch this year because of a lingering hamstring injury, and missed the World Baseball Classic because of ankle issues – he’d get the same after 2019, maybe even more, with the free-agent market about to get juiced by the historic Class of 2018.

Arbitrary caps happen to encumber him now, in potentially laughable ways. The Dodgers, Padres, Astros, Cubs and Giants are among 11 teams limited this year to spending a maximum of $300,000 on an international player as a penalty for breaking previous thresholds. So if Otani, one of the best players in the world, decides he wants to play for, say, the Dodgers, not only would his signing bonus cap at $300,000, he would enter into baseball’s salary system like a rookie, meaning he would make about $550,000 for each of his first three seasons, then be subjected to three more in the restrictive arbitration system, before he reached true free agency.

In a February interview with Sportsnet’s Arden Zwelling, Otani said: “Personally, I don’t care about money.” He has made millions playing in Japan and plenty more on top of that via sponsorships. And over the winter, when Nippon Ham declared it would place Otani into the posting system and allow his transfer to MLB following the 2017 season, he voiced no objections to the salaries awaiting him.

Teams are wary still. One GM put it this way: “Does he want to come over here badly enough that he’s essentially going to pay $100 million a year for two years to play?” Theoretically, there are ways to circumvent this. One scout familiar with Otani predicted a “handshake deal” in which the team gives him a contract extension after the first season, though high-ranking sources at MLB said the league expects to be vigilant to ensure the sanctity of the system is not made a mockery by extralegal payments.

How they might adjudicate that is tricky. If, say, Otani were to sign a contract extension after his first season, and it weren’t close to in line with previously established market values for players with a year of service time, it would be obvious that some sort of deal had been struck. The Pandora’s box of MLB intervening in contracts, though, is one that it dare not open, not in the name of enforcing a rule as flaccid as the international restrictions may prove to be.

All of this is subject to backdoor dealings that have not started in earnest, bringing into question the likelihood of Otani’s move to MLB this winter. If Otani has hired an agent, none of the GMs surveyed know about it, and his silence from across the ocean only compounds the confusion. MLB, according to sources, has sought clarity from Nippon Professional Baseball on Otani’s status as teams prepare to start signing a new international free-agent class July 2. It still has not heard from NPB on the matter, and further complicating the issue is the ever-evolving posting system.

When Daisuke Matsuzaka and Yu Darvish came to MLB, teams could win the rights to a player in a blind bidding system, and nearly half of the $100 million-plus outlay for each went to the posting fee. The imbalance was obvious, and the new posting agreement for Masahiro Tanaka allowed him to negotiate with all teams that were willing to pay a $20 million fee. Tanaka himself got nearly eight times that from the Yankees.

Shohei Otani has yet to pitch this season because of a hamstring injury. (Getty Images)

Otani’s situation has the potential to look positively retrograde, and MLB understands the ugliness of the optics that would have him potentially getting a smaller signing bonus than an average fifth-round pick in the amateur draft while his former team reaps tens of millions. The last time Nippon Ham posted a player was Darvish, for whom Texas paid the Fighters a $51.7 million fee.

The Rangers again find themselves at the center of the speculation on Otani, not just because GM Jon Daniels went to Japan to personally scout him but because of their excellent relationships and reputation in the country that stems from Darvish’s success. There’s one other factor that comes into play, and it answers the outstanding third question from earlier: Does Otani really want to try to play both ways regularly?

The answer, almost everyone in MLB believes, is yes – and that is the sort of X-factor that may well disqualify suitors and empower others. The prospect of Otani playing in the outfield regularly and pitching every fifth day in a rotation is farfetched, as much because it’s a foreign concept in MLB as the bodily wear and tear it could cause. A likelier option is spending the four days he’s not pitching as a designated hitter, and multiple American League teams surveyed believe they have an inside track accordingly.

Counting out NL teams, of course, would be foolish this early in the process. Before Nippon Ham convinced him to sign out of high school, Otani was planning on become the first high school player to jump from Japan to an MLB team’s affiliate. That team? The Dodgers, whose integration of Hideo Nomo in the 1990s hastened the flow of Japanese players to the major leagues.

Today, Nomo works as an adviser for the Padres. Akinori Otsuka, another successful Japanese pitcher, is their Triple-A bullpen coach. And earlier this year, they hired a man named Seiichiro Nakagaki as their director of applied sports science. When he worked for the Fighters, Nakagaki was a significant influence on Otani, teaching him proper training techniques and helping him turn into the strapping 6-foot-4, 220-pound leviathan he is today. The Padres, aware they can’t compete with the financial might of their Los Angeles rivals, have pulled the baseball equivalent of college basketball teams hiring an AAU coach in hopes of landing his star recruit.

Maybe it works. As one official put it, if Otani does want to spend 2018 in MLB, “$5 million is not going to be outcome determinative. This is a long play. He’ll sign where he’s most comfortable. Easy as that.” The official chuckled and asked: “So, do you know what makes him most comfortable?”

Is it spending his nights at home instead of out partying? One GM’s report pegged Otani as something of a homebody. And does the fact that so few know much about him say something about his ability to connect with others? And are these injuries that keep cropping up indicative of deeper medical concerns? These questions aren’t rhetorical. They’re ones being asked to no avail.

So goes the mystery of Shohei Otani, whose hold on the baseball zeitgeist will abate no time soon. It’s almost perfect that an enigmatic air surrounds a too-good-to-be-true player, this character from another time trying to do something that seems impossible. The sooner the better for MLB, which hopes Otani really does value the game over money but understands the reality may be stacked against it.

“I don’t think he’ll come [this year],” one NL GM said. “Actually, I don’t even know why I’m saying that. I don’t know if he’ll come. Nobody does.”

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