Though his freedom from the (relatively luxurious) indentured servitude of team control and limited contract arbitration is still three years away, Bryce Harper's demigod skill set and unreal offensive production at such a young age has anonymous team executives and vested agents suggesting he could become baseball's first half-billion-dollar free agent. And why not? He'll be 26 when his deal with the Washington Nationals expires, and the kid hits homers that look like they'll land when his next contract expires.
But if Harper's talents are worth a contract equal to the collective GDP of the islands of Micronesia, what would you pay a guy who could match him swing for herculean swing in a home run derby, and then take the mound and strike him out with straight gas—and is still just 22 years old?
Shohei Otani, of Japan's Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters, has long been considered by many to be the best pitching prospect in the world, but his emergence at the plate this year has turned him into one of the most intriguing stories in baseball today.
First, the arm: As the Fighters' ace, Otani currently leads the Pacific League in strikeouts (132 in 108.2 innings) and ranks second in wins, with eight. His team, located on the northern island of Hokkaido, has come to expect that sort of performance; he won 15 games in 22 starts last year—NPB teams have six-man rotations and play fewer games—with a 2.26 ERA and 196 whiffs in 160.2 innings. In June, he set a Japanese record with a fastball clocked at 163 km/h (just over 101 mph).
"He's got the makings of three average or better secondary pitches," says Dave DeFreitas, who spent years scouting Otani in Japan for the Cleveland Indians and then the New York Yankees. "I think his split is probably the best. In high school, he didn't have a great breaking ball; he struggled with consistency and didn't throw a ton of strikes. But as he's grown into his body, his breaking ball has developed. But his split should be the best."
And yet, even with "stuff so good it probably plays anywhere," according to DeFreitas, it's Otani's mind-boggling run as a hitter that is the real revelation this season. Though he has been the best hitting pitcher in Japan since his NPB debut in 2013—he hit .274 with ten homers in 2014—Otani has become a bona fide offensive star this season.
Like in the American League, NPB's Pacific League clubs are permitted use of the designated hitter, but the Fighters waive that option when Otani is pitching. And when he's not on the mound, Otani starts about three times a week as the DH (he played the outfield until 2015), a distinction no other hurler in Japan can claim (nor, probably, would they want to). In 151 plate appearances this season, he's hitting .341—which would be good for second in the league if he had enough at-bats to qualify—and ten home runs; he has walked 25 times, and combined with a .659 slugging percentage, his OPS is an otherworldly 1.109. San Francisco's Madison Bumgarner, who batted for himself in an AL park on Thursday, has been talking a big game about wanting a place in the Home Run Derby, but Otani, who generally hits third in the order for Nippon-Ham, is the guy who could actually win that whack-a-thon.
"Otani had a really bad year at the plate last year that he attributed to probably focusing on his pitching more (and he was great at that), but this year seems to have really worked on his batting mechanics," Jason Coskrey, a reporter for the Japan Times who writes often about Otani, told VICE Sports. "He also put on more muscle, so his body is probably better suited than before."
Indeed, Otani put on ten pounds of muscle in the off-season, after posting a career-low .202 average and .628 OPS last year. He was determined to deliver on his offensive potential, because his love of hitting is a large part of what kept him in Japan in the first place.
In 2012, Otani was the hottest prospect in Japan, with a fastball that touched triple digits and won him national admiration in the Koshien tournament, Japan's annual high school championship that turns teenagers into overnight mega-celebrities.
"Otani was such a standout prospect in high school, he had superstar written all over him," says Robert Whiting, the godfather of English coverage of Japanese baseball and author of the seminal 1989 book, Ya Gotta Have Wa. "The [Los Angeles] Dodgers had a scout who had been watching him all through high school and got to know his manager and family, so there was a time people thought he was going to sign with a big league team."
According to DeFreitas, whose Indians scouted Otani but had no financial hope of landing him, the young pitcher was all set to sign with the Dodgers, even before announcing his intentions to come to America that spring. It would have been an historic moment—no Japanese high-schooler had ever jumped straight to pro ball in the States—but comfort and logic intervened.
The Nippon-Ham Fighters, who play in Sapporo, had the No. 1 draft pick that year. And while the club couldn't offer the same sort of signing bonus or international stage, it had one trump card: if Otani made the trans-Pacific jump, he was in for some major culture shock in the backwoods of minor league America.
"What changed his mind was a video Nippon-Ham put together showing what life would be like in U.S. minor leagues," Whiting explains. "Long bus rides to small towns with no Japanese restaurants or Japanese people. If he signed with Nippon-Ham, he would be a national hero from Day 1. Family and friends would be there to support him. Life in the U.S. minor leagues isn't much fun, in AA or some cow town in Texas with 18-hour bus rides. Whereas in Sapporo, he would be able to stay in the team dormitory and there would be lots of girls outside ... It wasn't a hard sell."
Now Nippon-Ham controls his rights through 2019, and with a $21 million cap on MLB posting fees, the team has less incentive to make him available more than a year before his free agency; long gone are the days of the $51 million premium that Texas paid the Fighters for Otani's flame-throwing predecessor, Yu Darvish. But there is always pressure in Japan from fans eager to see their countrymen succeed in America, and there's virtually no chance that Otani would stay with Nippon-Ham past his initial contract. This season he's making $2 million, and NPB's highest salary this season is around $4 million, which pales in comparison to what he could earn from a Major League team. At some point, the Fighters will want to cash in.
So it's a matter of when, not if, Otani will come to the United States; once he arrives, the bigger question is whether a team will let him hit, especially on a regular basis. Even the best hitting pitchers in the States only get to hack it once every five days; Giants manager Bruce Bochy downplayed letting Bumgarner hit for himself last Thursday, and was granted a reprieve from the pitcher's Home Run Derby lobbying when the MLBPA nixed the idea on Friday. But no pitcher at the Major League level has ever produced the sort of numbers Otani is putting up for the Fighters. If he could do that in America, it'd be hard to argue with a two-for-one deal—though, as DeFreitas points out, any team that signs him will see his arm as the primary investment.
"It depends on the organization," DeFreitas says. "If this kid really wants to do that, a team willing to let him try might have some negotiating power. It'd be tough ... If you're going to have a top of the industry contract as an ace and then expect him take 300 at-bats, too ... that's a lot to take on."
In the meantime, scouts and writers are waiting to see if Otani can hold up an entire NPB season as a two-way player and remain so potent on both sides of the field. Worst-case scenario, he falters, and he's the world's best pitching prospect. But if he stays healthy and productive at the plate all season, he might just land an unprecedented contract and forever change the way the world looks at Japanese baseball.
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