The World Baseball Classic is well underway and the world is watching meaningful baseball in March and unlike spring training, these games count. Ballplayers are suiting up for their respective countries and beaming with pride as they represent their home nations on their jerseys.
Two-time WBC champion Japan has high hopes to return to the final round for the fourth straight time. They will have to do it without their best pitcher, who also happens to be one of their top hitters, Shohei Otani. After battling an ankle injury he decided to not compete for the national team, which puts a damper on Japan’s title hopes, but also disappoints many MLB scouts because it is expected Omani will make the jump to the Major Leagues after the 2017 season. The WBC looked to be a showcase for Otani to show off his talent not only on the mound but at the plate as well, while playing at the Tokyo Dome for the first few rounds.
All the 22-year old has done the past four seasons with Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters is go 39-13 with a 2.66 ERA over 77 starts. He also hold the record for the fastest pitch recorded in the NPB hitting 162 km/h on the gun. That equates to 102.5 mph for us Americans who have no idea how the metric system translates to our backwards system, (whoever decided there is 12 inches in a foot, and 5,280 feet in a mile just threw some numbers out there and called it a good day in my opinion, but that’s an argument for another day) This kid can hit those numbers on the radar gun on a consistent basis as well, which allows him to dominate the competition so easily.
People aren’t calling Otani “Japan’s Babe Ruth” for nothing. Not only is he dominant on the mound, when he grabs a bat opposing pitchers beware, because this young star can hit just as well as he pitches. He boasts a .275/.347/.491 career slash line, while hitting 40 HR and 135 RBI. That is unheard for a starting pitcher at any level of competitive baseball, so no wonder he has been garnering such a buzz to come play in the United States and possibly become the next best two-way player.
Starting in the early 2000’s the influx of Japanese born players coming to the MLB has risen and popularity of the sport has grown tremendously in the land of the rising sun. The most famous of these players, Ichiro Suzuki, took the league by storm and is on the tail end of a Hall of Fame career. Suzuki didn’t show up in Seattle till his late 20’s and has done more for the growth of the game in Japan than any other player. Otani could very well be this upcoming generations version of Ichiro if he signs a MLB contract following this season. Being only 22 he would have a larger time frame than Ichiro had, and if he is anything like Ichiro as far as longevity, Otani’s MLB career could be one for the ages.
All this is just speculation at this point, but it is most likely that an MLB team will offer Otani a contract, and for cheap. A new CBA rule stipulates that any international player under 25 years of age at the time they are signed, must be done for a lower salary. Otani wouldn’t be making the millions he probably deserves until the 2019 season, but then again Bryce Harper, Mike Trout and Kris Bryant were only making six figures when they won their respective MVP awards. If he is smart Otani will sign with a team and be ready to go for the 2018 campaign and gain valuable experience against top hitters and pitchers.
The completion is more fierce in America than in Japan, and it would be beneficial to grow as quickly as possible here in the States. Teams interested in Otani include the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox and San Diego Padres. The Yankees are the front-runner right now because, of course, they have the money to pay him if he performs well and is rewarded a huge contract after the 2019 season. Also, if Otani decides to wait until 2019 to sign he will be a multi millionaire if he keeps his play up. San Diego is a dark horse in this race due to lack of money unlike the other clubs, however, the Padres do have a great working relationship with the Fighters, so that could sway a deal in their favor.
It remains to be seen where Shohei Otani will end up come 2018, but come 2019 and beyond there is no doubt that he will be in a big league uniform. If he is as dominate as he is in Japan, he will more than likely catch on with am American League team, who can utilize his pitching ability on the mound, and DH him when his bat is needed in certain situations. It’s a shame baseball fans will not see him compete on the world stage over the next few weeks, but if there is a time to start paying attention to professional baseball in Japan, the time is the 2017 season and Shohei Otani is the phenom player to keep both eyes on.