There’s a Growing Fear When it Comes to Signing Otani

Ed. note: It is with no small measure of reluctance that I must formally announce a change in my spelling of Shohei Ohtani’s last name. Though there is technically no correct letter-for-letter translation from the Japanese characters, Ohtani’s representatives from CAA have clarified that they’ll stick with the spelling used most recently on his jersey.

Shohei Otani (despite mounting pressure, I’m going to refrain from using the “h” in his surname until I die on this hill) is a 23-year-old with potential to be a top-of-the-rotation starter and an everyday corner outfielder at the same time, and he’s only going to command a max bonus of $3.5 million on top of a rookie salary. He is, at least in terms of potential, the perfect baseball player. Young, cheap, talented.

There’s only one problem: He’s too talented to be so cheap.

I had laid this out a couple months ago when we first learned just how limited Otani’s bonus would be, but there’s a reality dawning on baseball execs that courting the two-way star will put a target on their backs. See, this isn’t just about signing Otani in the first place, it’s about how a team handles his contract in the future.

Below is a snippet from what I wrote in September and we actually talked about this on the latest Cubs Related podcast as well.

I believe MLB’s boss has a bigger domestic issue to worry about. And by that I mean the likelihood of having to preside over contract shenanigans when it comes to luring Otani to Team X.

So now you’ve got the possibility of teams negotiating back-room deals with a prearranged contract extension that would completely circumvent the spirit of the CBA. Sure, plenty of players have signed extensions while still under the bounds of their rookie deals, but none of them have been as coveted as Otani. Nor have they been as restricted by bonus limits.

[T]he commish just doesn’t want to have to investigate and rule on whether teams negotiated honestly and openly and within the letter and spirit of the current rules. And I get that, I really do. It could absolutely turn into a big old mess…especially given the notoriety of the primary party involved.

That was all hypothesis based on what might happen if everything worked out, but now that it’s really coming to fruition we’re getting rumblings that teams are indeed wary of the fallout from signing Otani. The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal has more on that in his recent Hot Stove report (subscription required and recommended).

One executive told me Tuesday that the team that lands Japanese two-way threat Shohei Ohtani will draw immediate suspicion from other clubs for possibly circumventing the hard cap on bonuses for international players under the age of 25. Several other execs agreed, saying such a conclusion was inevitable under the new rules.

Officials from the commissioner’s office have told the clubs their actions with Ohtani will be watched closely, and that any future extension for him outside the established boundaries of the market will be viewed as circumvention. But how would baseball confirm any verbal agreement between Ohtani and his new team? And if Ohtani hits 25 homers and pitches to a 3.00 ERA as a rookie, who’s to say what his boundaries might be?

Ohtani and his new agents at CAA almost certainly will be careful to avoid engaging in nefarious behavior, lest they get caught and bring shame to Ohtani both in North America and Japan. The losing bidders, however, are unlikely to be convinced the winners adhered to the rules

This is one of those situations in which everyone is operating under the age-old idea that something that seems too good to be true most likely is. Yet even the slightest application of logic here seems to render all these fears moot, or at least files the sharp teeth of anxiety down to nubs.

Otani could have removed the need for backroom deals and subversive tactics altogether by remaining in Japan for two more years. He also would have earned far more money right away with such a deal, as even a hasty extension would not match what he’d get as a full-fledged free agent.

Then you’ve got the fact that this isn’t a game of Clue. Do execs really believe that only one team, the winning bidder, would have been unscrupulous in their dealings? I suppose it’s in our human nature to be suspicious or jealous or whatever, but I think the fear is less that other teams will think you cheated and more that they’ll try to screw you over by other means in the future.

If nothing else, this is a new little wrinkle to consider as The Baseball Bachelor plays out and we wait for Otani to hand out that final rose. Or however he decides it in this case. Imagine, baseball teams are going to have to be extra careful about conducting their business above-board and being demure both publicly and privately. What a concept.

And in that, I believe even more sincerely that the Cubs have as good a chance as anyone to land Otani. They’re clean and they know it and they aren’t concerned with other teams whining about it after the fact. Now we just have to wait and see.

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