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Japanese RHP Shohei Otani Coming to MLB

It looks like a Japanese high school baseball player is going to sign directly with American team. Big in velocity and stature, right-hander Shohei Otani has confidence too: the 18-year-old seemed to imply in his press conference comments (as recorded by the Associated Press) that he think he’ll “challenge” for the big leagues soon. Though he’s an intriguing young pitcher, there are a few mitigating factors that may keep the market for him limited. No matter what happens, his signing will break new ground in Japanese-American baseball relations.

Perhaps the first thing that you’ll hear about Otani is that he’s been clocked at 99-100 mph. Maybe you’ve seen this video:

It’s quite a video, even if it’s short. His last pitch lights up “160” on the the gun, which is 99.4 mph. He gets the strikeout. He’s acknowledging the crowd. He’s six-foot-four and has room to grow. He’s got the baby-face-throwing-gas look that haunt scouts’ dreams at night. American scouts are in the crowd. A few teams have even met with him. He’s a big arm available on the open market. He looks like the future.

Sort of. The gun was hot that day, for one. Patrick Newman from the site NPB Tracker said that scouts had him at 150 to 155 kmh (93.2 to 96.3 mph) at that game — still great velocity but not quite triple digits. And though we don’t have readily available statistics for Japanese high school, news of his bad control has followed excitement about his velocity and stuff. Newman excellently wrote up an Otani start in one of their legendary tournaments, and he points out that a) Otani’s fastball, slider and curve all showed excellent raw stuff and the young man struck out 11 in eight-plus innings and b) his control was unrefined, he walked 11, and looked terrible by the end of the game. Oh and Newman also had less flattering video, this time of the pitcher falling apart in the seventh inning. For one last asterisk, Otani threw 173 pitches in that game, which happens often in Japanese high school, but could make an American team balk if the asking price rises too high.

Just your average high-risk, high-reward international signing.

Except that there’s that new international spending cap that teams have to deal with — $2.9 million per organization. The normal signing period for IFAs is in July, too, so many teams have spent too much of their budget to hang in any extended bidding war for Otani’s services. There have already been 30 high-profile such signings according to this IFA tracker from MLB Daily Dish, and the first day was a buscone’s bonanza, with smaller deals frittering away team cap space by the hundred thousands.

So the rumors have it that the Red Sox, Dodgers and Rangers are interested, and that’s an interesting group. The Dodgers signed 21-year-old Yasiel Puig to a six-year $42 million Major League contract — a monster of a deal to fit a monster of a man — but they did it three days before the new rules came into effect. The Red Sox did something similar with Tzu-Wei Lin, and then followed it up with a Dominican pitcher in Jose Almonte a few days later. The Rangers thought they’d done the same thing with the $4.5 million they gave Jairo Beras when he inked in February, but then it turned out the Dominican outfielder was 17 instead of 16. That meant he was supposed to enter the free agent pool in July and be subject to the $2.9 international signing cap, but since there was already a deal in place, baseball basically threw up its hands and said that his age was undetermined and the Rangers were allowed to keep him without forfeiting their $2.9 million in cap space. All three of these teams got out in front of the new rules and may now benefit from hanging around late, as it looks like they’ll be the main players at Otani’s table.

When Otani signs, whatever his future, he will make history. (Sort of.) There hasn’t been a high school prospect of his caliber that has skipped the Nippon Professional Baseball draft in this manner. Junichi Tazawa never signed with an NBP team and came directly to Major League Baseball, but he wasn’t sitting in the mid-nineties, and he was already playing in the industrial leagues after having graduated high school. Otani is a legitimate first-round type talent according to most scouts, even with his asterisks, and he’s coming straight from high school. Once the teenager signs, he would have to survive a three-year NPB ban after leaving MLB before playing for his home country’s league again (known as the Tazawa Penalty), but otherwise the NPB has no control over a player that has never signed with one of their teams.

That’s okay. A six-foot-four 18-year-old with mid-nineties gas and at least one workable secondary pitch will get a lot of chances in American baseball before he’s through, even if there are some asterisks.