Okay, So There’s Still a Chance Shohei Otani Gets Here Before Long

There’s been a lot of speculation about what the features of the new CBA will mean for Major League Baseball, but we won’t really understand their impact for at least another year. That said, I hope we don’t have to wait until 2020 for hindsight regarding Shohei Otani‘s stateside career.

I’m going to operate under the assumption that you’re already aware of this Ruthian phenom, he of the blazing fastball and powerful bat, so I’ll not bother retelling tall tales of his exploits here. What I won’t assume, however, is that you’ve followed the rumors regarding the Cubs’ high degree of interest in the young do-everything star from Japan. Of course, no sooner had we those rumors become more valid than they were essentially shot down.

You probably read Cubs Insider religiously and click all the links to provide further context for what I write, so it’s redundant for me to mention that the increased age and experience requirements may prevent Otani from joining an MLB team during the next three seasons. That’s because, at only 22 years old and with 4 years playing for the NPB’s Nippon-Ham Fighters, Otani isn’t even close to eligible.

Under the previous CBA, a player had to be at least 23 and/or have 5 years of service time in his current league. However, those bars have been raised to 25 and 6, respectively, and my understanding is that it really is and, not or. That’s an important distinction in this case because Otani will have 6 years of time following the 2018 season but will still be only 24 years old. So it really comes down to where they draw the line to define age.

When someone talks or writes about a player’s age-whatever season, the line of demarcation has traditionally been June 1. For example, 2017 will be my age-37 season even though I turn 38 on June 2. While it’s not quite as close to the cutoff, Otani’s July 5 birthday could mean that 35 days will cost him 365 when it comes to MLB free agency.

Having not seen the actual language of the agreement, which is still being massaged a bit anyway, I don’t know if there’s anything in there to address the specifics of how a player’s age is defined. I had actually been convinced by the early reports that the changes to age and experience levels were meant to impact Cuban players specifically. Though I’ve not been given further clarification, my revised guess is that that’s because those players are no longer required to defect and establish new residency, thus they’re subject to the same rules as players of other nationalities.

Anyway, back to the lecture at hand. Otani was not going to be posted until after this coming season at the earliest, so it’s not as if there are immediate ramifications to this whole thing. And it’s possible that he wouldn’t have been posted after 2018 either. I’m admittedly very fuzzy in the intricacies of NPB contracts and very little exists — at least within the scope of my research — to specify exactly what Otani’s contract status is.

I’ve heard that he’s under team control through 2019 and also that Japanese teams maintain nine years of control on rookie contracts, which I think would carry him through 2021. If the former is true, it would mean that Otani could come to MLB when his contract expires and his team would miss out on the requisite $20 million posting fee normally associated with such a move. Fine for him, great for his new team, bad for his old team.

Here’s the thing, though, none of that may matter. Well, the contract still matters, but we’ll assume Otani’s team would be willing to post him prior to turning 25. The rules on international players weren’t crafted with only one player in mind, they were put in place to limit spending/earning potential as it concerns a very broad pool of talent. In this case, Shohei Otani is simply the baby being thrown out with the bathwater.

Or, to use a more esoteric analogy, it’s like when a couple of my fraternity brothers repainted the walls of their room, thus wiping out a couple decades of signatures left by that room’s previous denizens. That probably wouldn’t have been a big deal, but for the loss of one Woody Harrelson to the indiscriminate paint job. While there was no recourse with that snafu, baseball may be able to employ a little legal turpentine to the CBA.

I don’t want to go so far as to say this is something that has to get done, as there are no guarantees that Otani is ever going to be able to operate the heavy hype machinery being built for him. But he’s the type of player who can really move the needle, so postponing his MLB debut would be a bad move for pretty much everyone involved. Here’s to hoping all parties are able to come to an agreement on that front.

Regardless of what happens with the CBA, you’ll be able to see Otani in action when the World Baseball Classic opens up in March. And should Japan make it out of the second round of that tourney, you may get to see the multi-talented phenom at Sloan Park on March 19. And if everything works out according to what I presume to be Theo Epstein’s wishes, you’ll be seeing a lot more of this kid in Mesa in the future.

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