Japanese baseball star Shohei Otani, who is in the midst of a Ruthian season for the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters—the two-way stud had a 1.86 ERA and 174 strikeouts in 140 innings, to go along with 27 homers and a .322/.416/.588 triple slash in 2016—is reportedly ready to play ball in America. He’ll be doing so on the cheap.
The league’s new CBA makes it impossible for any international free agent under the age of 25 (Otani is 23) to enjoy the fruits of baseball’s free market. Teams are given a hard cap on how much bonus money they are allowed to pay players in this category, and so the most any team would be able to throw at Otani this offseason is about $10 million. This is is unbelievably silly, given that Otani would easily command a contract upwards of $150 million if he were treated like a normal free agent.
Every team in the league is going to want Otani, and they all must be thinking of ways to skirt baseball’s dumb rule. The obvious option is for teams to give Otani a handshake promise that they will sign him to a massive contract extension after he plays out his first season on a measly deal. A plan like this would certainly present some risk for Otani—what if he suffers a massive injury in his first season and the team backs out of its promise?—but it’s better than him earning peanuts while waiting three years to enter arbitration. Unfortunately, MLB seems poised to block such a workaround, as Yahoo’s Jeff Passan reports:
Since the new rules regarding international players were announced, the question surrounding Otani has been some derivation of: How is he going to skirt them? Officials at MLB insist any effort to subvert the spirit of the rule will not be allowed. Would the league, for example, attempt to cancel a nine-figure contract extension for Otani if he stars in his first season? One official said precedent will matter, and any contract that doesn’t have a forebear will be considered a violation. Might a team attempt to negotiate an under-the-table deal to make whole Otani as well as the Fighters? It could, though MLB believes the possibility of being caught and sanctioned will scare teams straight.
This is stupid and self-defeating. Not only has MLB made it harder for itself to lure the best players in the world, it seems prepared to go out of its way to close loopholes in a case where it would be an obvious benefit for everyone involved to look the other way.
In the end, the league’s stodginess on the issue might not matter. I’m not sure the commissioner’s office would have much success trying to void a second-year contract extension for Otani, given that many star players, like Andrew McCutchen and Madison Bumgarner, have chosen to sign pre-arbitration extensions early in their careers. If a team decides that Otani is worth that kind of investment, how is the league going to tell them no?