Red Sox: Gearing up for a run at Japanese pitcher/outfielder Shohei Otani

TOKYO, JAPAN - NOVEMBER 21: Shohei Otani
TOKYO, JAPAN - NOVEMBER 21: Shohei Otani /

Japanese pitcher/outfielder Shohei Otani has been the talk of the MLB for years. Is this offseason the year he leaves Japan, and could the Boston Red Sox be gearing up to land him?

Okay, so I know you’re already asking yourself who is this Shohei Otani, and why should I, a Boston Red Sox fan, care?

Well, if you haven’t been paying attention to the Nippon Professional Baseball league for the last few years that’s understandable. Actually, I take that back. If you love baseball you owe it to yourself to watch some NPB.

Maybe not all 146 games a year, but you should certainly be able to appreciate some of the highlights.

The rules may be slightly different, and the baseball may have been juiced for a while, but good baseball is still good baseball. Often times baseball executives will refer to the NPB as ‘AAAA’ level ball. More competitive than Triple-A, but not quite the same level as MLB.

Okay, back to Otani. Shohei Otani, who has been playing for the Nippon Ham Fighters since he was their first draft pick in 2012, is a unicorn. He is possibly the only true two-way player in professional baseball.

“But wait,” I hear you say, “didn’t this last amateur draft involve a good two-way player?” Okay, fine, if you want to be technical about it, yes. Brendan McKay was a two-way player at Louisville, and it is part of what got him drafted 4th overall by the Tampa Bay Rays.

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Here’s the difference between McKay and Otani. Brandan McKay pitched 315 innings for Louisville, compiling a 2.23 ERA. He also slashed .328/.430/.536 with 28 home runs over his college career. That’s certainly good. But that’s against NCAA level competition, and it’s very very unlikely he’ll carry that success against MLB opponents.

Tampa says they’ll let McKay be a two-way player, but I firmly believe he’ll have to make a decision before he gets out of Double-A ball.

Otani, on the other hand, has been playing in the NPB since he was 18 years old. His career numbers are much more impressive than McKay’s when you consider the level of competition. He’s pitched his way to a 2.55 ERA over 513 innings and has a career slash line of .284/.355/.499 with 45 HRs in 380 games.

Career numbers aside, last season he was unbelievably good. He finished 2016 with a .322/.416/.588 line, 22 HRs, and a 1.86 ERA in 140IP. He was selected as an NPB All-Star for the third consecutive season, threw the fastest pitch in league history (102.5 MPH), won the home run derby, and helped his team win the Japan Series (the NPB equivalent of the World Series).

His season K/9 of 11.2 would have been the third best in the MLB in 2016, better than ace strikeout pitchers Max Scherzer, Noah Syndergaard, and Michael Pineda.

He also hit a home run every 14.7 AB, which would have tied him for the 9th best home run rate in the league. Compare him head-to-head with other left-handed batters, and the only player he’s behind is David Ortiz.

He’s been slightly injured for most of 2017, which has kept him off the pitcher’s mound, but it hasn’t dampened his power.

So how do you tell a player who can strike out batters more frequently than Scherzer and hits home runs more often than Bryce Harper that he has to pick a position?

You don’t and that is why Shohei Otani is more valuable than Brandan McKay. Well, that and Otani’s 100+ MPH heater.

“Okay, so this kid is awesome in Japan. What does that have to do with the Red Sox?”

That’s a fair question. Right now the Red Sox have exactly as much to do with Otani as every other team in baseball. Nothing.

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In order for Otani to be signed by any MLB team, his Japanese team has to agree to post him first. Basically, the Nippon Ham Fighters will tell every MLB team that Otani is available, and who ever signs him will pay his Japanese team for Otani’s rights. If no one in the MLB signs Otani (highly unlikely) he will still play for the Nippon Ham Fighters.

The rumor is that Otani will be posted after this season, and most MLB teams are gearing up in case he is.

Since Otani is under 25, the current Collective Bargaining Agreement limits the amount of money teams can use to sign him. He is going to be subject to a team’s International Bonus Pool and as such, there is a hard cap on the amount he will get when he signs.

The Red Sox started with a bonus pool of $4.75 million and have added to it through trades this season. Jon Heyman believes that the Red Sox have been adding to their bonus pools in preparation for an Otani sweepstakes this offseason. editor and all around great twitter follow, Chris Hatfield, feels differently.

There’s a reasonable chance Otani might not even be posted this offseason. On August 20, Otani threw a pregame bullpen session that was attended by much of the Los Angeles Dodgers top brass. Among those present was Dodgers’ President of Baseball Operations, Andrew Freidman.

This is worth mentioning because the Dodgers are currently ham stringed from making a big international free agent splash until after the 2018 season.

"The Dodgers are already limited from signing any international amateur to a bonus above $300,000, thanks to them blowing past the soft spending limits under the old CBA, in the 2015-2016 international signing period. Those penalties will continue with the current CBA, with the $300,000 limit disappearing for the Dodgers in the 2018-2019 international period. — Via’s Eric Stephens"

The Dodgers have done quite a bit of scouting on Otani in the past, and if they believe that he will be available this offseason, why would they send so many people to watch him pitch? Teams like the Red Sox and the Yankees have around $8 million dollars available as opposed to the Dodgers’ $300,000 cap. They wouldn’t stand a chance in a bidding war.

I think the Dodgers know something that the rest of us do not. I don’t think they would be scouting Otani so heavily in a year where they would not be able to sign him due to penalties. Penalties that will no longer be in effect in the following offseason.

That coupled with Otani’s apparent willingness to play another year in the NPB seems to point towards him not being posted this offseason.

There’s also a chance Otani waits until he’s 25 to leave Japan. In two years he won’t be restricted by the CBA’s hard cap and could sign anywhere without any pool restrictions. Otani has shown that he’s willing to wait before. Could he bet on himself for another two seasons and try to land a landmark deal?

With Otani, it is certainly a matter of when he comes over, not if he will come. So be it this season, the next, or even the next, should the Red Sox be interested?


Despite being burned by some previous big name international free agents (Yoan Moncada, Rusney Castillo, and Daisuke Matsuzaka to name a few), the Red Sox have overall had great success in the international market.

Some great Red Sox players have been signed as International Free Agents. After all, that’s how we acquired maybe the most underrated Red Sox player ever, Hideki Okajima (you know you still miss him).

Also on the list, Hanley Ramirez (before he was traded), Junichi Tazawa, Tzu-Wei Lin, Xander Bogaerts, and some kid named Rafael Devers.

The Red Sox may have been burned by Dice-K and his mythical “gyroball”, but that hasn’t (and shouldn’t) deter them from signing Japanese pitchers.

The Red Sox have had a long history of successful Japanese pitchers. This year is the first I can remember where the team doesn’t have a one on the roster.

The Red Sox actually set an MLB record in 2009 by having three Japanese pitchers appear in the same game.  There’s your fun fact for the day. Tell that one to your friends and I guarantee they’ll be impressed.

Okay, maybe not. But it’s still a great piece of trivia.

Anyway, that’s probably what Otani represents to the Red Sox: a top-tier pitcher. In Japan, his team would let him play Outfield/DH on his off days. It’s hard to imagine an MLB team willing to let him do the same.

It is an interesting idea though. Could you imagine what it would be like to watch Otani pitch 8 innings against the Yankees and then hit two home runs the next day? I’d sign up for that.

While I would love for the Red Sox to make a real run and try to sign Otani, I’m probably siding with Chris Hatfield. The Red Sox may be interested (and have been since 2012) but I’m not expecting it. If he wants to pitch and hit, odds are he’s going to end up in the National League.

I’m not expecting Otani to be pitching for Boston anytime soon. But then again, I never thought I’d be watching Chris Sale or David Price take the mound for the Red Sox. With Dave Dombrowski at the helm, anything is possible.

Next: Who can we expect to see called up in September?

Whenever Otani is posted (and that’s a when not an if) we should all hope for the Red Sox to make a strong push for him. Just don’t be too upset if he’s signed by the Dodgers.