Japanese superstar, and soon to be international superstar, Shohei Ohtani shocked the baseball loving world when he stated his desire to come to MLB this winter. Not that his decision itself was shocking—it was long known he would eventually do it just like all the higher end talent in the world want to play in the US—but the timing of his decision was.
Last year the MLB Players Union and ownership agreed on a new CBA, changing the framework of several MLB rules and regulations. One of the more noticeable changes was the increasing of the age required to be an international free agent. For much of the past, a player had to only be 23 years old to sign with any team and be unrestricted from international bonus pools. After the new CBA was agreed upon, that minimum age was now 25.
Ohtani turned 23 this past July, thus making him ineligible for a true international free agency bid. Under the old CBA, he’d be free to negotiate with any team for any amount (on top of the $20M posting fee the Nippon Ham Fighters would receive). Now if Ohtani chooses to come over, he’ll receive a maximum of only what an MLB team has left in their international bonus pool. This is after the money they’ve given out to Latin American youngsters eligible for this year’s July 2nd class.
Here are the remaining international pools for each team (per the Associated Press):
New York: $3.25M
Tampa Bay: $440K
Chicago Cubs: $300K
Chicago White Sox: $300K
Kansas City: $300K
Los Angeles Dodgers: $300K
St. Louis: $300K
San Diego: $300K
San Francisco: $300K
Los Angeles Angels: $150K
New York Mets: $105K
I am curious as to how they came about these numbers. According to Spotrac, Texas spent $3.325M on international talent (excluding Wildred Patino who didn’t sign and Damian Mendoza whose bonus only counts against the pool at 25% since his Mexican League team keeps 75% of it). They had an initial pool of $4.75M, thus some easy subtraction should mean they have $1.425M left. Somehow they acquired $2.11M extra. Teams can acquire up to 75% of their original pool ($3.56M for Texas for a max pool of $8.31M), but from what I can tell, the Rangers only made two trades for international money:
Yeyson Yrizarri to the White Sox for an undisclosed amount - at least no figure I can find, just “international bonus slot”)
Brallan Perez for $500K to the Orioles
The White Sox had an initial pool of $4.75M, but they were limited to only signing players to a max of $300K. They signed at least one player for that amount (Sydney Pimentel), so they had roughly $4.45M left to trade.
Getting $500K from the Orioles gets them up to $1.925M, so that would mean the White Sox would have had to send $1.61M for Yrizarri. That’s possible I suppose, but that’s quite a sum. For reference, the Yankees received $1.5M from the A’s in the Sonny Gray trade when Oakland received Dustin Fowler, James Kaprielian (top 100 prospect), and Jorge Mateo (top 100 prospect). Maybe the Spotrac list of signings and bonuses is wrong, but I digress.
The Royals bonus pool was among the top bracket of all teams ($5.75M), but they are restricted to only signing a player for $300K since they went over their pool allotment in 2015. They made several bigger signings that summer, getting Seuly Matias for $2.25M, Jeison Guzman for $1.5M, Sebastian Rivero for $450K, and Angel Medina for $425K.
While it isn’t impossible for them to spend their entire pool amount, they would have had to give the max deal to almost 20 players. They gave $300K to only one (Yeral Gonzalez).
If they weren’t in the proverbial penalty box, KC would have ~$5.35M to sign Ohtani, making them the clear front runners in terms of money. Also if Ohtani had waited to classify for the 2018-2019 signing period, the Royals would have been out of the penalty box and could allocate their entire pool (likely again to be $5M+) to Ohtani. However even if that were the case, it’s unlikely that any team ever would have their full pool available. Teams often make deals with international amateurs a year or more before they are even eligible to sign (some as young as when they are 12 or 13 years old). Teams would have to pull those under the table arrangements (which aren’t allowed in the first place but are standard practice) to free up money. Now I know what you are thinking, instead of giving $1M+ to a 16-year old, give it to the budding international superstar instead. However, the agents of those amateurs, called Buscones (who, by the way, are immoral at best and illegal at worst), would likely deny any future activity for any of their future players with a team for doing that.
For Ohtani though, he’s made it clear time and time again that it isn’t about money for him (obviously, he’s foregoing $100M+ by not waiting two years to come stateside), so even having a large pool amount might not be important. The Dodgers are considered “in the running” for Ohtani, but as you can see they have as much money to spend as the Royals.
Ohtani is looking for the best fit, and his agent just sent a memo to all 30 teams asking them to explain why they would be a good fit for his services.
- An evaluation of Shohei’s talent as a pitcher and/or a hitter
- Player development, medical, training and player performance philosophies and capabilities
- Major League, Minor League, and Spring Training facilities
- Resources for Shohei’s cultural assimilation
- A detailed plan for integrating Shohei into the organization
- Why the city and franchise are a desirable place to play
- Relevant marketplace characteristics.
Let’s fill this out for the Royals briefly, starting at the top
An evaluation of Shohei’s talent as a pitcher and/or a hitter
There have been oil-tanker-sized amounts of digital ink spilt on Ohtani’s abilities on the diamond. He’s a two-way player in Japan, where he exceeds on both sides of the ball. He’s often linked to American League clubs because they could give him the opportunity to DH on days he isn’t pitching.
Let me just say two things here. Yes, Ohtani has hit well in the NPB, but Major League Baseball is a different beast. ESPN’s Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS projections has Ohtani hitting .266/.328/.466 this year, good for a 112 OPS+, and peaking at a 121 OPS+ at age 27. Obviously, that’s still an above average hitter, but not a superstar hitter. For reference, AL designated hitters this year had an OPS of .753. That would Make Ohtani a better than average DH in the AL, but more along the lines of Shin Soo-Choo than Nelson Cruz.
He’s much better as a pitcher than a hitter, and Eric Longenhagen of FanGraphs gave him a 45/50 hit tool and 60 raw power as a hitter. That’s close to what he gave Willie Calhoun of the Texas Rangers in his preseason Top 100 list when he ranked Calhoun ar #86. The big difference is, Ohtani would solely just be a DH, where Calhoun plays second base. Only three first basemen made his Top 100:
13. Cody Bellinger: 30/45 hit 60/70 raw power
50. Josh Bell: 55/60 hit 55/55 raw power
73. Dom Smith: 50/60 hit 55/55 raw power
There is also the difference that those guys play first base (which is slightly better than DH), and Bellinger is a very good defensive 1B and got a 60/70 defense. They benefit from having played in the United States too, so scouts can get a feel for how they compare to other prospects. Baseball at the highest level of Japan is often compared to being roughly equal to AAA here in the US. Unlike the US though, a 23-year-old hitting well in the equivalent of AAA would be impressive since he is facing older players, where as in AA, being 23 would be nearing the average age for a prospect at that level and often facing guys younger than you.
Secondly, no team is going to risk their likely star pitcher getting hurt hitting. There is no way he would bat in the four days between starts, that’s just too big of a risk (remember when Kendrys Morales hurt himself touching home plate on a homer?). This is why I think it’s more likely that he goes to a National League team where he’ll hit obviously on the days that he’s pitching, and potentially being among the first names for a pitch hitter on his off days (though I’d imagine that the day immediately after his start he’d be strictly on rest). So really you are talking something like:
Available to PH
Available to PH
Available to PH
At most it would be three days a week, for one plate appearance. If you give him three plate appearances per start (and 30 starts), and then a PA on every one of those available days, that’s 180 plate appearances over the course of the season. A nice benefit for the team since he’s capable with the bat without running a huge injury risk of giving him 3-4 PA every day he is off on top of pitching 6+ innings and batting another 3-4 times that same day.
Player development, medical, training and player performance philosophies and capabilities
This one is tough to field from being on the outside of the organization, as they are much more familiar of course with the intricacies of their facilities and staff. What is known is that from 2013-2015 the Royals had some of the better health in all of baseball. Whether that was luck or true skill in that department is undetermined, but there doesn’t seem to be any clear evidence that anyone is doing something obvious (like Dan Warthen did with the Mets who all their pitchers are getting hurt).
Player development is another question mark, as the Royals farm system has borne little fruit since 2010. Whether that is due to the players selected or the development of those players is another question.
Ohtani seems like someone who is interested in analytics. The Royals do have an analytical department, but it’s unclear how the operations staff values them or how much stock they put into the information they are provided. It’s worth mentioning that the Royals just lost their Director of Analytics in Mike Groopman, who left the organization to pursue a role that was “not possible” with the Royals.
Major League, Minor League, and Spring Training facilities
Kauffman Stadium often is cited as one of the better parks in baseball, and it’s the sixth-oldest stadium in the league. I haven’t been to most minor league parks, but no Royals affiliated park made the top 25 in a survey done by Baseball America. Really the only one that matters of Ohtani’s purposes is the Royals AAA affiliate Omaha Storm Chasers Werner Park (which I have been to). It’s a fine enough stadium, but Ballpark Digest rated it the 15th best AAA park.
The Royals play their Spring Training home games at Surprise Stadium in Surprise, Arizona. The stadium was just renovated in 2016 with upgraded player amenities and expanded audience seating.
Resources for Shohei’s cultural assimilation
I don’t even know where to go with this one, and I’d imagine front office’s aren’t going to make this the most detailed section of their response. Kansas City isn’t exactly the Mecca of different cultures, and KC ranked 44th in a recent index of diversity (Kansas City, Kansas ranked 13th).
The Royals have had several Japanese players before (Hideo Nomo, Mac Suzuki, Yasuhiko Yabuta, and Nori Aoki - though on Yabuta signed initially with KC), but I wouldn’t say they are experienced in integration.
I don’t think Ohtani would have an issue assimilating, but I can’t see how Kansas City wins this category.
A detailed plan for integrating Shohei into the organization
Ohtani of course would immediately be the star of the team and likely the best player (semi-hot take here I suppose), filling the hole that the Royals departing free agents left.
What’s interesting is that since Ohtani would only command a league minimum contract (for now), the Royals could potentially re-sign some of their free agents (Lorenzo Cain, Mike Moustakas, and Eric Hosmer) while affording Ohtani. That would make them potential Wild Card contenders but is unlikely to be enough to snatch the division title out of the hands of the Cleveland based baseball team.
Even though I’d advise against it, Ohtani could DH on his off days as the Royals don’t have any real internal competition there (yes, I know Brandon Moss still exists). That would allow him to continue to play the same way he does in Japan (though I think it’s worth mentioning that the NPB has every Monday off - what a dream).
Why the city and franchise are a desirable place to play
Ummm... I don’t know? He’d certainly have tons of playing time and could be part of the Royals next core (even if that core doesn’t appear to exist right now).
Kansas City does have an annual Japan Festival every October.
As of the 2000 census, Kansas City’s Japanese population only numbers 295, but it’s now at least 296 because my sister-in-law who lives here is Japanese (as long as any of the previous 295 Japanese residents didn’t move or die).
Fortunately, Kansas City does have a sister city in Japan, Kurashiki. Unfortunately, Kurashiki is on the other island than where the Ham Fighters play and 13 hours from his home town of Oshu.
Kansas City doesn’t have a Japanese consulate (it was closed in 2004)
KC does have a Japanese Society
So unless Ohtani is basing his decision off barbecue, I don’t think the Royals are winning this category either.
Relevant marketplace characteristics.
Another uncompetitive category for the Royals here too. Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago are going to be the frontrunners when it comes to this. There Ohtani can be the face of endorsements both locally and nationally while making a lot of money in the process.
So the Royals are unlikely to field a competitive offer for Ohtani given their lack of funds to offer him and just a strong as intangible resume.
Another interesting thing about Ohtani is his contract structure. Since he’s coming over as a pool restricted amateur, he’ll only make the major league minimum and be subject to the same six-year free agency rules. This means from 2018-2020 he’ll “only” make the MLB minimum (~$550K), and then be subject to arbitration for 2021-2023 (though he’ll almost certainly be Super Two designated, thus making him eligible for arbitration in 2020).
Ohtani and teams could work out an under-the-table agreement to give him a huge extension, but that requires a lot of nuance. We just recently saw with Atlanta how MLB takes to those kind of deals that attempt to circumvent the spirit of the law (resulting in their general manager being banned from working in a front office again - which is just a formality anyways as he’d never be hired anyways) and the commissioner's office sent a letter specifically warning teams not to try anything funny with Ohtani.
Whichever team does win the Ohtani bidding will eventually agree to an extension, the question is just how quickly can they do it without the Commissioner’s Office thinking it is an attempt to circumvent the rules. That’s a question that has no answer. MLB would be unlikely to ban anyone from baseball for agreeing to an early extension and Ohtani himself would certainly not be punished (no player has ever been punished for this type of thing). It’s possible that the Commissioner’s Office could rule Ohtani a free agent, unrestricted by pools this time and free to sign anywhere (tons of precedent here for this) but instead it’s likely that they would just deny the contract.
Listen, the Royals aren’t signing Ohtani, let’s be real here. While it will be a great spectacle to watch, the only way he’ll be pitching complete game shutouts at Kauffman Stadium is when he inevitably signs with the Yankees (though I’m picking the Mariners), and he befuddles the Royals lineup.
Still though, the Royals have every incentive to try to sign him because money isn’t the determining factor here like it is with every free agent. Every team in baseball is likely to try to court him because every team in baseball can both afford and use him.
Instead though, the Royals should use their remaining bonus pool money either to try to sign the recently freed Atlanta prospects or trade that money away to a team in the running for Ohtani. The somewhat neat thing about international money is that it exists on paper, even if a team doesn’t have any intention of using it. It has value, and teams truly lose it if they don’t use it, so anyone not intent on using it would be best to trade it to someone who will. That money too isn’t an obligation to spend it anyways, but an option to. So even if the Royals traded $1M to the Rangers 1) they aren’t actually sending any of their money and 2) if the Rangers lose out on Ohtani, they can still spend it on Atlanta’s freed players.