The Continued Costs of Miller Park

Signing Shohei Otani

Chances are you’ve heard about Shohei Otani. Talent hounds have been braying his name for years, and with good reason. A quick introduction: Last year, he performed like Noah Syndergaard on the hill and Mike Trout with the stick. His résumé in the Japan Pacific League included a 1.86 ERA with 11.2 strikeouts against 2.9 walks per nine innings as a pitcher, which pairs nicely with a 1.004 OPS and 41 extra base hits across 323 plate appearances as a hitter. His true talent level is probably about on par with that of Sidd Finch, except Otani is real. When Shohei Otani makes the leap to MLB, he’ll be the best Japanese pitcher to come over since Yu Darvish, and the best hitter since Ichiro–and Otani can hit for power.

For such an accomplished player, Otani is unbelievably young. He turns 23 later this season, and that’s where things get really interesting. Under the latest iteration of baseball’s Collective Bargaining Agreement, any team wishing to sign an international player under 25 years old is subject to a hard cap on signing bonuses. And baseball allots comparatively small bonus pools to each team. Most teams are given $4.75 million to work with; smaller market clubs like the Brewers are awarded up to $5.75 million. Teams are also allowed to sweeten their own pots, as any organization can trade for an additional 75 percent of their base bonus pool. So the highest theoretical bonus an organization could hand out to Otani hovers around a fairly reasonable $10,000,000. It’s worth noting that the signing organization’s total expenditure would also include a $20 million “posting fee,” paid to Otani’s Japanese team, the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters, in exchange for bargaining rights. Gone are the days $63 million investments in wunderkinder like Yoan Moncada.

Under this new system, Otani’s logical financial decision is to wait for two years, lay further waste to the Japan Pacific League, and come to America on a mega-contract at the tender age of 25. But money is not the end for Otani, and baseball is much more than just a means. The star has already indicated that he wants to spend next year, and many more to follow, playing stateside. He’s eager to prove himself against the best competition in the world, and is apparently willing to sacrifice tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars to do so. Hokkaido seems happy to honor those wishes and post him this offseason. The 2017-2018 MLB offseason, then, should be a 30-team bloodbath to secure Otani’s services.

There are two ways to interpret this. Thinking positively, the Brewers can make a play for Shohei Otani! That’s good news. The bad news is that every other team in the league can make a play for Otani, too. Ordinarily in cases like this, the small-market Brewers wouldn’t stand a chance. They lack the star power of the Cubs, the pocketbook of the Dodgers, the prestige of the Yankees, and on and on and on. Once again, a dose of plot thickener comes courtesy of the CBA.

As a small-market team with a competitive balance pick in round 1-A of this June’s amateur draft, the Brewers are entitled to an above-average $5.25 million International bonus pool. Of the thirteen other clubs with bonus pools above the $4.75 million base, five (the Royals, Cardinals, Padres, Reds, and Athletics) are restricted from signing any player for over $300,000. This is something of a punishment for gluttony, since each of those teams blew past their bonus pool in one or both of the previous two signing periods, and now must suffer the consequences. The Braves, Cubs, Astros, Dodgers, Giants, and Nationals are also subject to this punishment.

Of course, there are other substantial hurdles to clear. Milwaukee isn’t exactly known as a cultural hub, and west coast teams have a distinct geographic advantage in their proximity to Japan. Then again, the Brewers can cite their impressive stockpile of prospect talent, and it’s important to note that west coast teams like the Dodgers, Giants, and Athletics are all but priced out of the running.

The Brewers dearly value versatility, and Otani offers that in spades. General consensus around the industry holds that teams could be leery to allow Otani to take the field on days that he isn’t on the mound. The dreaded injury barometer, already on permanent high-alert for pitchers, spikes with every diving outfield catch. This may tip the scales slightly in favor of an American League club like the west coast Angels or Mariners, the prestigious Yankees, or the emerging powerhouse in Cleveland. They could allow the phenom to serve as Designated Hitter. Of course, nobody knows whether Otani would be content with such a role or whether he’d insist on getting regular glovework.

Finally, as Dave Cameron recently pointed out on Fangraphs, a creative club could find ways to fudge the signing rules. While his bonus won’t break the bank, a clever team could simply extend Otani for hundreds of millions a year or two into his American career. A particularly nefarious team (the Cardinals, say) could even attempt to reach some sort of handshake agreement to do exactly that. If his numbers warranted such an investment, the league surely couldn’t quarrel. Perhaps Otani grew up loving the Dodgers, and would be willing to sign for a pittance, trusting that some combination of arbitration or extension would lead him to stupid sums down the road. Once again, nobody knows.

And that’s what makes this all so fun. Anything could happen. Otani could sign anywhere, for any sum. He could be the next Nolan Ryan, the next Mike Trout, or the next Babe Ruth. He could even single-handedly change the way we think about baseball. The MLB is already enjoying a sudden uptick in two-way players. The Padres have Christian Bethancourt, and the Reds have Michael Lorenzen. Anthony Gose is working on his curve, and the Brewers are experimenting with Nick Ramirez and Parker Berberet down on the farm. Otani could become a hyper-talented new prototype, capable of racking up spades of value by missing bats and crushing fastballs in equal measure.

There would be a healthy shot of risk involved in such a thing. There’s always risk at the front lines of a possible revolution. But we’ll know soon enough if any organization is willing to take such a chance. It may all come down to some team saying, “Hello, Shohei. We’ll deploy you however you desire. Sign on the dotted line.” The Brewers probably won’t be that team. They could be, though. And they could be the next time an international phenom lights up the boxscores. For now, that’s plenty to get excited about.

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