I first wrote about the real-life Steve Nebraska potentially coming to the Yankees five months ago, when the 22-year-old Shohei Otani was in the midst of his Pacific League MVP season. Not only did Otani lead his Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters to a Japan Series championship, he was also named an NPR All-Star for the third straight season, and is the first player in Pacific League history to be named to the Designated Hitter Best Nine and Pacific League Best Nine as a pitcher.
In 2016, Otani flashed his unique skillset by compiling a .322/.416/.588 slash line with 22 home runs and 67 RBI in just 323 at-bats, while also pitching to the tune of 10-4, with a 1.86 ERA, a 0.957 WHIP, and 174 Ks in only 140 IP.
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It’s easy to see why MLB scouts and front offices are licking their chops at the prospect of acquiring the once in a generation like talent.
According to a report in December by the Japan Times, Masahiro Tanaka of the Yankees said:
“He was good, just as I expected. There’s no comparing him physically with how he was in his rookie year, when I pitched against him. … If you have what it takes, I think the younger you are the better contract you get.”
The issue with Otani is that he’s still only 22. Meaning, the much stricter international spending cap as outlined in the new collective bargaining agreement prohibits a player under the age of 25 from receiving anything over $6M in the form of a signing bonus from a Major League club.
Because of this, there is a good chance that Otani’s Japanese team doesn’t post him for another three years. While this isn’t necessarily a terrible thing for MLB, since it’s likely teams would need to know whether to employ Otani as an outfielder who hits or a pitcher with pinch hit ability — his desired contract is expected to exceed $200M once he does hit the open market.
One would think that Tanaka working out with Otani gives the Yankees a slight upper hand if/when the time comes for Otani to bring his game Stateside. But this can be looked at in a multitude of ways.
For the Yankees to truly beat out other interested clubs, they’ll need to really open their purse strings. And even though Tanaka has been very effective since coming over from Japan in 2014, the organization may be leery about giving another foreign-born player such a large sum of money without knowing the true extent of playing professional baseball at such a young age has on the body.
Secondly, there is the lingering issue of Tanaka opting out after this season. If the Yankees are unwilling to re-sign their 28-year-old No. 1 to a long-term deal, it could directly effect building a relationship with Tanaka’s countryman. Obviously, money talks and B.S. walks, but it would be a whole lot easier to convince Otani to accept a deal from the Yankees if his friend Tanaka is still in tow.
And lastly, let’s say Otani posts any time from the offseason of 2017 through 2020. What makes us think the Yankees will abandon their new money saving methods to make this splashy signing?
Yes, they have the enormous salaries of both CC Sabathia and Alex Rodriguez coming off the books after this season, but inking Otani would severely limit the funds that many want the team to allocate towards Bryce Harper and/or Manny Machado in the coming years.
While this would certainly give Japan a huge boost in terms of winning the international contest, it would be an absolute disaster for the Yankees. Tanaka’s employers in America do not need their best pitcher putting extra miles on his arm — especially so early on in the calendar year.
If Tanaka were to fully tear that UCL in his right elbow playing an exhibition of sorts, then what? Even if he were to escape unscathed, who knows the ramifications that exist through the course of this season. It simply isn’t a chance worth taking, for Tanaka or the Yanks.