It's almost Ohtani Time.
It hasn't exactly been a straight line, as Major League Baseball, the MLB Players Association and Nippon Professional Baseball had to hammer out a new posting system, but it looks like the time has come for Japanese two-way phenom Shohei Ohtani to be made available to all 30 Major League teams with the system expected to be ratified on Dec. 1.
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Even though he has never played a game in the big leagues, Ohtani is arguably the top talent available on the free-agent market, and he will continue to generate more Hot Stove buzz than anyone. Of course, he isn't your typical free agent, and he's subject to both Japan's posting system and the international amateur free agent rules. There is a fair amount of nuance to both of these processes, so with that in mind, here is a handy FAQ that should tell you everything you need to know about Ohtani and the process that teams will go through to get him signed.
How does the posting system work?
With the new agreement, some parts of the posting system will change, and some will stay the same. The Nippon Ham Fighters, Ohtani's team in Japan, will still get a $20 million posting fee, which was the maximum under the previous agreement. Moving forward, posting fees will be a percentage of the guaranteed money in the player's initial MLB contract.
Ohtani's signing window will be 21 days after this new agreement is ratified (expected to happen Dec. 1) and he is initially posted. In the future, it will be a 30-day posting period.
Any team that made an acceptable bid is allowed to negotiate with Ohtani during the 21-day period that begins once Nippon posts him. Each team entering into that process is well aware that if it is able to come to an agreement with the two-way star, it will then also have to write a $20 million check to Nippon.
That's the "simple" part. Figuring out which team will be in the best position to woo Ohtani and sign him is more complex for a number of reasons.
How will the international spending rules factor into this?
It's not just about finding the right fit for Ohtani's multiple talents. Because he is coming here now, his signing bonus is beholden to the international amateur free agent market rules. Had Ohtani waited two more seasons until he is 25 years old and a true free agent -- or had been posted a few years ago, before the new international bonus pools had been put in place -- he would have gone to the highest bidder, end of story. Perhaps a team would have even raised the bonus to entice Ohtani to just play one way. A deal in excess of what the Yankees gave Masahiro Tanaka before the 2014 season (seven years, $155 million) seems realistic.
Now, however, teams are limited in what they can offer. Under the new Collective Bargaining Agreement that was signed last offseason, each team is given at least a $4.75 million bonus pool to spend, with teams that receive Competitive Balance Draft picks getting a bit more, either $5.25 million (Comp Round A) or as much as $5.75 million (Comp Round B). That money can be (and has been in some cases) traded, so there is some wiggle room, but not a lot, with teams able to acquire up to 75 percent of their bonus pool and add to it. That means that if your pool is $5.75 million, you can trade for up to 75 percent of that (roughly $4.3 million) and add it to your original total, bringing you up to a theoretical maximum of $10.1 million.
In addition, teams have already been spending on the international market since the signing period began back on July 2, so there aren't as many dollars to spend or even trade for.
Which teams have the most money to sign Ohtani?
Based on international spending as of Wednesday, the Rangers have the most left in their current pool, with $3.535 million to potentially offer Ohtani. Here are the 10 teams with the largest pools:
Giants ($1,835,000) *
Cardinals ($1,247,500) *
Braves ($1,210,000) *
Teams that exceeded their bonus pool under previous CBA and cannot sign a player for more than $300K
As mentioned above, teams can augment their pools via trade. Part-time sleuths might want to keep an eye on the transaction wire. If a team suddenly accrues as much international spending money as possible, that could be the organization ready to sign Ohtani. Even so, the maxed-out bonus offers still pale in comparison to what Ohtani could get on the open market.
The absolute most a team could gather up and offer is just over $9.7 million, by the Orioles, something unlikely given that Baltimore has traded away most of its pool money. (If you trade away pool money you can "trade back" for it, but once you've spent it, you can't reacquire it.) The Twins, Pirates and Marlins could get to north of $6 million, though Miami recently sent pool money to the Yankees, while the Rangers are the only other team that could potentially get more than $5 million to offer.
There's one more wrinkle in all of this. Several teams, including ones that might seem like good fits, are even more hamstrung because they went over their spending totals in the previous signing period. The penalty for that excess is being limited to offering any single player no more than $300,000. There are a dozen teams, including the teams listed above with an asterisk, limited in this way: Giants, Royals, White Sox, Cardinals, Cubs, Braves, Dodgers, Astros, A's, Reds, Nationals and Padres.
"Him coming out proves it's not about money," an international scouting director said. "He could wait and get a lot -- way more than $10 million. It sounds like he wants to win, and will want to be in a good situation for his culture. He makes a lot of money off the field already, and he'll make more off the field here."
Even if it isn't all about the bonus, whether Ohtani would be willing to sign for just $300K out of the gate remains to be seen.
One final thing: These bonus pools are "hard caps," which means clubs cannot exceed them under any circumstances. Under the previous CBA, a team could go over its cap and incur penalties that increased in severity based on the percentage they exceeded their pool. That is no longer the case, so the pool you see is the pool you get.
Can't Ohtani just sign a contract extension as soon as he gets here?
Not so fast. Even that has some limitations and complications. Attachment 46 of the current Basic Agreement polices teams trying to circumvent the bonus rules. In a nutshell, there can't be any additional agreement at the time Ohtani initially comes to terms. Any representation of a second deal would be a violation. Penalties could include prohibiting a team from signing international players for a year or docking the team 50 percent of its full pool for up to as many as five years.
While there have been instances of players signing extensions before proving themselves in the big leagues, with the Rays employing this to lock up young players like Evan Longoria (six years, $17.5 million a week into his MLB career) and Matt Moore (five years, $14 million a couple of months in), those were players who were already in the team's system. With Major League Baseball watching closely to see if there was any discussion beforehand, the team that signs Ohtani will have to make sure there are no under-the-table type agreements, and they will have to justify why they are making an extension pre-arbitration. There's no hard and fast rule as to when this could happen, but many in the industry feel that a year in the big leagues is a safe waiting period.
"He's going to have to trust the process," another international scouting director said. "Anyone who approaches him with any kind of deal, that would be stupid. Major League Baseball will be on top of this. People try to circumvent the process, but Commissioner [Rob] Manfred came out and said directly that can't happen.
"Bottom line, he's going to go where he wants to go. He's going to get his money. He knows the first year, then after that who knows what the deal is. You have to do it the right way. If someone tries to do something different, it's going to come out, and teams will get penalized."
Considering the harsh penalty the Braves just had to pay for infractions on the international market -- including former general manager John Coppolella ending up on the permanently ineligible list -- it's hard to foresee any general manager attempting to skirt the rules.
Just how special is this guy?
Really special. You've probably heard a lot of hype about this 23-year-old who is a star on the mound and in the batter's box, and it's not hyperbole to say Ohtani is the best prospect to ever come out of Japan, at least when you factor in his age relative to the likes of Ichiro Suzuki, Yu Darvish, and Tanaka when they came to MLB.
Though a right ankle injury kept Ohtani out of the 2017 World Baseball Classic and sidelined him for the first half of the season in Japan -- and kept him off the mound for all but five starts -- he is a scout's dream, with a fastball that hits 100 mph and a slider that compares to MLB's best. In 2016, his most recent full season, he posted a 1.86 ERA with 174 strikeouts in 140 innings while hitting .322/.416/.588 with 22 homers in 382 plate appearances as a part-time DH.
In limited duty this year, Ohtani still whiffed more than a batter per inning on the mound while posting a .942 OPS at the plate. He just underwent successful surgery on his right ankle and is expected to be 100 percent for Spring Training.
"We're all speculating, and every team will try to figure it out," one international scouting director said. "We know he likes pitching better than hitting and would like to hit, but we don't know if it's an ultimatum. If he just wants to hit, there are teams who would sign him."
There has been some speculation that Ohtani would prefer to sign with an American League team so he can DH, but an international scouting director told me recently that no NL teams should be ruled out, as he could play the outfield a couple of days per week between starts (he played 54 games in the outfield in 2013, but hasn't played the field since '14).
"Everything out there is he wants to play the field and wants to go to a team that will let him," a scout said. "He really wants to be the cornerstone of the organization. He wants to feel he's a big part of any organization he goes to. We're doing due diligence, trying to find out as much as we can."