Get excited, baseball fans - Shohei Otani is on his way.
With word that the Japanese two-way phenom will reportedly be posted at season's end, the question turns from when he'll reach the majors to where he'll sign. Thanks to the new bonus rules, that's where it gets tricky. How much the 23-year-old Otani can sign for varies from team to team - anywhere from $300,000 to $10 million, plus the posting fee to his Japanese club. At that ridiculously low price, expect this once-in-a-lifetime talent to be pursued at some level by all 30 teams.
So let's handicap where each team stands in the (very) early stages of the race to land him.
The long shots
Twelve teams currently have only $300,000 in bonus money available, according to MLB.com. Two of these clubs have a slightly better chance despite this handicap, which we'll discuss below. That leaves 10 in the worst position to land Otani, who surely won't accept a $300K bonus to come over. So, apologies to fans of the Braves, Cubs, White Sox, Reds, Astros, Royals, Athletics, Cardinals, Giants, and Nationals - it's probably not happening.
The Braves did reportedly add $1.25 million in bonus money through trades this year, according to Jon Heyman of FanRag Sports, but signing rules only allow for teams to add up to 75 percent of their initial bonus money through trades. That still puts these teams at a significant disadvantage.
Outside factors give two Southern California rivals in the $300,000 bracket some hope. The Padres hosted Otani at their spring-training complex in recent years and have established many connections to Japanese baseball, including a "working agreement" with the Nippon Ham Fighters - Otani's current team - that's been in place for nearly a decade. If he wants to go there, the rebuilding Padres would likely have to deal prospects for extra cash, unless San Diego's weather and general awesomeness as a city appeal to him beyond belief.
Meanwhile, $300K won't hold the Dodgers back. They have billions in the bank; an important place in Japanese baseball history thanks to Hideo Nomo; Hollywood's star power; and - of course - winning. The Dodgers have already added an extra $1 million in bonus money, and could potentially trade another prospect for even more dollars. Still, their odds are slightly worse because they can't add as much bonus money via trades. As with the Padres, Otani's desire to play for the franchise probably dictates how far this pursuit gets; at least the Dodgers likely hold an advantage over San Diego in this regard.
Every race has its dark horses, and there should be a lot of them here. Let's break these groups down by available money:
Ten teams started this year's signing season with $4.75 million in bonus funds without being penalized, Baseball America's Ben Badler reported in December - and many of them had scouts watching Otani this week.
The Tigers, Mets, Phillies, Mariners, Blue Jays, and Angels are among the clubs that started the signing season here. Toronto's one of the 16 teams reported to have watched Otani recently, though it spent over $2 million of its allotment in July. The Mets added $1 million in money via trades. Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto was reportedly part of the crowd of big-league eyes watching Otani this week, and being able to use the legacy of Ichiro's Seattle career in a sales pitch surely couldn't hurt his cause.
This group may be longer shots on the money front, but expect the larger markets to make their presence felt come November.
(Photo courtesy: Getty Images)
The Marlins, Brewers, Rays, and Twins can all spend up to $5.25 million this year, but all four small-market clubs splashed cash in July - notably, Baseball America reported the Rays gave No. 1 international prospect Wander Franco a $3.825-million signing bonus. They may all get seats at the table to try wooing Otani with what's left of their pools, but fans of these four shouldn't buy his jersey just yet.
Five teams - the Diamondbacks, Orioles, Indians, Rockies, and Pirates - started this bonus season with the maximum amount of dollars available to them and zero penalties, per BA. The Orioles signed no prospects this July and dealt an unknown amount of bonus funds to the Yankees on July 31. Cleveland gave $1.3 million to a Dominican outfielder and could still have some funds left over, plus the potential appeal of a World Series-winning team. Arizona, Colorado, and Pittsburgh didn't spend a ton this summer. Consider this group on the outside for now, with the ability to get into the game in a big way - if they choose to.
The Rangers look ready to make their move. In July, they signed one top-25 prospect (Baseball America didn't report his bonus), then added extra money last month by dealing a pair of prospects. That pushed their bonus money up to $6.75 million, Heyman reported. Is it a sign that the Rangers want to replace Yu Darvish with another Japanese import? Perhaps - but they'll still face the hurdle of being unable to add more than 75 percent of what they started with ($4.75M). Texas is still in a very good position, all things considered.
The leaders: Money and power in the East
Somehow, it always seems to come back to them.
The Yankees and Red Sox reportedly hold the largest allotment of bonus funds, and Yahoo Sports' Jeff Passan notes they can add up to $8.3 million if they so choose. This puts the AL East monsters in prime position for a bidding war. The Yankees and Red Sox should easily have the inside tracks given their bonus positions, winning pedigrees, and statuses as iconic big-market franchises. And, if Otani's successful, they have the financial resources to give him that megadeal when the time comes.
However, the Yankees used some of those funds on Dominican shortstop Ronny Rojas, who signed for a $1-million bonus, Baseball America reported Tuesday. That signing could potentially impact their Otani chase, unless they can A) trade for more money, or B) rely on being the Yankees to woo him to the Bronx.
And Otani enjoys the spotlight, the New York Post's Dan Martin reported Wednesday. Advantage, Bombers and BoSox.
What could ultimately hurt the Yankees and Red Sox is, quite simply, the bonus rules themselves. The big boys can't just outspend the rest of the bunch anymore, and Otani could decide to take less money in what he feels is a better situation.
Still, only these two seem to be able to offer Otani the full package of maximum money (under the circumstances), winning, and the spotlight. With sincere apologies to the rest of the league, it looks as though one of the Yankees and Red Sox could emerge as the winners yet again.
(Photos courtesy: Action Images unless otherwise noted)