An injury will prevent Shohei Otani from pitching for Japan in next month’s World Baseball Classic, but the two-way star might still be available to hit.
Though it remains unclear exactly when we might see him in Major League Baseball, North American fans are still fascinated by Japanese star Shohei Otani. News updates about the two-way phenom have popped up with increasing frequency over the past year, detailing his heroics both on the mound and at the plate. It appeared that spectators in the U.S. would get their first up-close look at the 22-year-old during next month’s World Baseball Classic.
Unfortunately, that may no longer happen. According to an Associated Press report, Otani will not pitch for Team Japan in the upcoming tournament as he continues to recover from a sore right ankle. The injury has apparently bothered him since the end of the last Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) season, when he led the Nippon Ham Fighters to the Japan Series title.
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“It would have been difficult in terms of getting ready in time. It’s unfortunate, but I won’t be able to pitch in the WBC,” said Otani, who is in Arizona, where the Fighters are holding a spring camp.
The report claims, however, that Otani might still be able to hit in the tournament, which would be a significant consolation for fans eager to catch a glimpse. Otani earned perhaps as much praise for his hitting prowess in 2016 as he did for his pitching skills. Over 382 plate appearances, he slashed a hearty .322/.416/.588 while belting 22 homers and driving in 67 runs. Otani’s considerable talent with the bat compels the Fighters to get him into the lineup as the DH or an outfielder on days he doesn’t pitch.
Of course, Otani continues to assert himself as one of NPB’s finest hurlers as well. In 2016 he posted a 1.86 ERA, 0.96 WHIP and 3.87 K/BB ratio over 140 innings. He allowed only four home runs on the year (0.3 HR/9) and struck out batters at an 11.2 K/9 clip, the highest rate of his four-year professional career. His ERA was a personal best, and the third consecutive sub-3.00 mark he has managed over a full season.
Naturally, wheels have been spinning in the minds of many baseball people in regards to Otani’s prospects in Major League Baseball. Could he buck current convention and be a legitimate two-way player? Would any team even take the risk of letting him try such a thing in a significantly more demanding league?
The bad news is that we might not find out for a while. Under the terms of the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, MLB clubs are limited to a spending pool of $6 million per year on international players under age 25. While there was briefly some speculation that the league might make an exception for a special case like Otani, they later clarified that they would not bend the rules for the Japanese wunderkind.
While Otani would surely like to test his skills against the world’s best competition sooner rather than later, it really makes no sense for him to force his way to MLB under the current system. He is due to turn 23 in July. If he waits a couple more years, he can explore a move to the major leagues without any earning restrictions. And assuming he continues to put up numbers like he has the past few years, MLB teams should still be more than willing to open their wallets to secure his services.