It’s funny – whenever we discuss the top free agents of the offseason and/or whom the Cubs should target, we almost always sidestep Shohei Otani.
It’s not that the Cubs wouldn’t love to have him (they absolutely would) or that he’s not the most talented available player (he very well may be), it’s just that the factors limiting the two-way player (a.k.a. the “Babe Ruth of Japan”) from ever reaching the Chicago Cubs are strong.
For one hurdle, the Cubs remain in the IFA penalty box until next July 2, because of past overspending in international free agency. That means they cannot sign any international free agent subject to IFA restrictions, like Otani, for more than a $300,000 signing bonus. Obviously, as one of the most exciting players – ever – to leave Japan for the States, he could command quite a bit more than that.
(Although, it’s worth reminding you that, because of the new CBA, the most Otani could theoretically sign for is about $10 million, and because of spending that’s already occurred this year, his maximum bonus right now is actually limited to only $3-$4 million, based on what most teams have left in their bonus pool.)
For another hurdle, the current posting agreement between MLB and NPB has expired and a new agreement is not yet in place. Previously, you might recall, MLB teams had to pay up to $20M to a player’s former team in Japan for the right to then negotiate a new contract for his term in MLB. Now, however, rumors have indicated that the Japanese team may simply get a cut (percentage-based) of whatever the player earns on his first/new contract.
And while that makes plenty of sense in isolation, I’m sure you can see the conundrum when it comes to a generational talent subject to IFA restrictions like Otani.
As recently as last season, Otani’s old team would have gotten $20 million for posting him. This year, however, the most they can hope to get (if a deal based on a cut is struck) is something like 15-20% of the IFA-restricted deal he signs (that’s 15-20% of a maximum $3-4 million).
Some have suggested making an exception for Otani (obviously, his current Japanese team would be in favor of that), but Keith Law is hearing that might not happen:
the sense I get is that the Commissioner's Office opposes creating an exception, but many team execs favor it https://t.co/xXvxC6IS6N
— keithlaw (@keithlaw) November 7, 2017
Again, obviously some team executives are in favor of the exception – especially those teams with the current IFA bonus pool advantage (the Yankees and Rangers among them) – while the league, itself, is not (making an exception for a player sets a fairly dangerous and unfair precedent).
And on top of absolutely everything, Otani would need to wait just two more years in Japan (he’s only 23 after all) in order to come over to the U.S. as a true free agent, capable of earning any amount of money from any Major League team (some estimates guess it could be as much as $200-$300 million).
So, as you can see, there are a lot of factors standing in the way of Otani coming to MLB at all, let alone, the Chicago Cubs specifically.
But this story doesn’t end here.
At ESPN, Buster Olney has heard that we’re still likely to see him in a Major League uniform in 2018: “The player is coming here,” one official said about Otani. “There is no doubt about that.” Well, okay. Actually, wait, what?
How can anyone be so certain Otani is coming to the states if 1. there’s no posting agreement at all right now, 2. his Japanese team would be reluctant to post him if the currently proposed agreement goes through, and 3. the league is not interested in making an exception?
Honestly, I don’t really know. Maybe, in some indirectly-related-way, MLB and the NPB will just extend their old agreement for all Japanese players for one year, thus creating an incentive for Otani’s team to post him (the full $20M), without creating a loophole just for him. That doesn’t really solve the problem of how much more money he could make by waiting two years, but it sounds like he really wants to play in MLB, could make money in other ways (endorsements), and still likely plans on a beefy extension somewhere in the immediate future.
In any case, Otani – who just hired a U.S. agent – is still likely heading over this winter, and the Cubs, albeit as underdogs, do have a fighting shot. So read up on him at ESPN, keep an eye out for any rule changes/exemptions, and wish as hard as you can that he prefers hot summers, cold winters, great pizza, and giant metal beans.