By Jack Gallagher
TOKYO -- The plot surrounding Japanese high school phenom Shohei Otani took another turn on Thursday when the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters made the pitcher their first-round pick in the annual amateur baseball draft.
The 18-year-old Otani made waves on both sides of the Pacific on Sunday when he announced that he would be bypassing Nippon Professional Baseball to try his luck with a team in the U.S. major leagues. The highly touted right-hander from Hanamaki Higashi High School in Iwate Prefecture sports a 100 mile per hour fastball and stands 6-foot-4. He would be the first top draft choice in Japan to sign with a major league club in the U.S. straight from high school.
The Fighters, who will take on the Yomiuri Giants in the Japan Series starting Saturday in Tokyo, will retain the domestic rights to Otani through next March. Their selection does not restrict him from signing overseas.
With the advent of satellite television and the movement of Japanese pros to North America, beginning with Hideo Nomo in 1995, it is not unusual to hear a prep player here dream about playing in the U.S. majors. But for one to attempt it without going through the Japanese system is an entirely new proposition.
Otani announced his decision before more than 50 reporters last week, and revealed that in arriving at it he had gone against the wishes of his parents, something extremely unusual for a Japanese teenager.
"It was a difficult decision," Otani said. "There was a conflict of opinions between me and my parents and the people around me, and I was in two minds. I fretted about it, so I am relieved. I am glad I was able to stick to my guns."
A dozen MLB teams have scouted Otani, with the most ardent pursuers said to be the Los Angeles Dodgers, Texas Rangers, Boston Red Sox and Baltimore Orioles. The decision by the Fighters (the team once managed by former Kansas City Royals skipper Trey Hillman) to pick Otani is sure to exert pressure on the star.
Sources say that the Dodgers appear to be the most eager to sign Otani.
"I think I will start in the minor leagues, but I want to challenge in the majors," Otani said. "It has been my dream since entering high school. I felt that I wanted to go [to the U.S.] while I was still young. I have admiration for Japanese pro baseball too, but more so for the major leagues."
Lost among all the glare of the chase is the fact that Otani is considered a raw talent at best, and one who should not be classified as "can't miss." Despite being a fine athlete who hit 56 home runs in his career while also playing the outfield and designated hitter, the evaluation of a Japanese scout and an MLB scout on Otani's mound skills is not entirely glowing.
The scouts’ consensus: "Good build, throws hard, decent movement, good stuff, bad to very bad command. He's a project. Probably would go decently high if he was a U.S. high schooler entering the draft."
Despite previous disappointments that followed the high-profile signings of Hideki Irabu and Daisuke Matsuzaka by MLB clubs, there does not appear to be much hesitation in the pursuit of Otani. Irabu and Matsuzaka were top pros in Japan for several years preceding their moves; Otani has just finished high school ball, and the impact of moving overseas and away from everything he has ever known cannot be discounted in evaluating his ultimate chance for success.
At least he sounds like he has the guts, which puts him in a class with Nomo in fortitude -- someone willing to buck the system and let the chips fall where they may. But Otani will have to learn English and succeed in the minor leagues to achieve his dream.
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The Fighters are reprising a ploy that was executed by the Seibu Lions with another pitcher at Otani's high school three years ago. Southpaw Yusei Kikuchi, who stated his intention to try and play in the U.S. in 2009, was courted by approximately 20 MLB and NPB teams. Kikuchi ultimately caved into the cultural pressure exerted by those close to him and chose to stay in Japan.
Pitcher Junichi Tazawa, who left his corporate league team here to sign with the Red Sox in 2008, was the first non-pro to head straight for the U.S. The fallout from the move was intense and resulted in the NPB taking action to penalize others who might be similarly inclined to make the jump.
"Tazawa went to the States against the wishes of many people," notes best-selling writer Robert Whiting, author of the classic "You Gotta Have Wa" and "The Meaning of Ichiro." "I don't know whether his family objected or not, but he went to America in the face of heavy criticism from the NPB and its supporters, and even caused NPB to change its draft eligibility rules. The new rule keeps players who circumvent the draft to go abroad ineligible for NPB play for three years in the event they decide they don't like life outside Japan."
This means once Otani signs with an MLB club, he can't play pro ball in Japan for another three years, even if he decides he wants to return and an NPB club wants to sign him.
The reality is that there is little the NPB can do to MLB clubs wishing to sign top Japanese amateur players.
"The impact of this is huge," said the GM of one NPB club, who requested anonymity, on Thursday. "I'm not sure how many will follow in the footsteps of Otani. I hope not many."
The GM pointed out the gentleman's agreement that NPB and MLB had first reached back in 1962, prohibiting the acquiring of amateurs by the other side. "When Tazawa went to the Red Sox, NPB protested and cited the agreement." he said. "But MLB said it never existed."
The GM boiled it down to Major League Baseball being in a position of power and holding all of the cards, with the NPB having almost no leverage. "It's the capitalist system -- the one with the power wins," he said.
One problem going forward for NPB teams is that they are limited to offering a ¥100 million ($1.2 million) signing bonus and ¥50 million ($600,000) in incentives, along with a first-year salary of ¥15 million ($180,000) to domestic prospects. U.S. teams are free to exceed those figures.
The only way for Japanese clubs to offset the advantage that MLB teams hold, according to the GM, would be to give them a dose of their own medicine by signing top amateur prospects from North America.
"If we went over and started offering $10 million to top amateurs -- guys who turn out like Buster Posey and Bryce Harper -- that would force the MLB and NPB to sit down and hammer out an agreement,” he said. “Until then, nothing will change."
"There is a clear and present danger of talent being hollowed out of our game," Yomiuri Giants team president Tsunekazu Momoi said on Wednesday. "We need to take this opportunity to discuss whether the existing rules are working, and how we can sell Japanese baseball to someone whose goal is to play in America."
NPB commissioner Ryozo Kato, a former Japanese ambassador to the U.S., believes that trying to make the game here more attractive would be more effective than punishing those players who wish to go to the U.S. majors.
"I think we should respect [Otani's] decision," Kato said. "If there is a proposal, I think it will be debated, but basically I believe that it is important that Japanese baseball becomes more attractive to players. Looking ahead at the future, I think all of the 12 teams must think about ways of making it more attractive."
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Gallagher is the executive sports editor of The Japan Times in Tokyo. He has been a sports journalist in Japan for 18 years and has been honored for his writing both domestically and internationally. He was previously an executive in public relations for the NBA and NFL Europe.