Obstacles Face Astros in Signing Otani
It seems like once a year there’s a new “can’t miss” international free agent and this year is shaping up to be no different. The top international free agent is not coming from Latin America—something that’s a bit unusual. He’s Japanese and his name is Shohei Otani. (Remember it because you’re going to be hearing it over and over during the off season and the months leading to the international free agent signing period in July.) Why the hype? Well, Otani has the potential to be the best pitching talent to ever come out of Japan. (Yes, perhaps even better than Yu Darvish.) Many seem to think this because of his youth (18 years old), projectable size (6’4”), and velocity (he hit the vaunted 160 kph mark while pitching in a high school tournament this past spring). In other words, he’s the exact type of talent the Astros should be going after. The only problem is…well…everything.
Money is one of first obstacles the team faces. Otani has been heavily scouted by a few teams, but you’d have to think just about every major league team is either preparing to make Otani an offer or strongly considering it. So, you’d have to think any team that really wants to get serious will need to be prepared to enter a bidding war. To make things even more complicated, the new owner of the Astros, Jim Crane, has stated publicly that he prefers to pay down debt versus spending. If this holds true, GM Jeff Luhnow might already have his hands tied before even taking any action. Of course, it’s no fun to be realistic that your team has no money to spend so, just for kicks, let us assume that Crane is onboard and did want to some money here. There’s a problem with that, too.
You see, as part of Major League Baseball’s new collective bargaining agreement, the Astros (and all other teams) are now subject to spending limits on international free agents. For 2012, all teams have a $2.9 million dollar amount allotted to signing these types of players and, while we don’t know the exact amount the Astros have already spent, let’s assume $1.5-1.9 million dollars of their allotted budget is still left. They could spend more of that budget if they choose, but by doing so they would be penalized at 100% for any additional overages plus be limited to between to a total budget of 250,000-500,000 for international free agents in 2013. The unfortunate thing of all this is the timing. Starting in 2013, the Astros could be allotted an international free agent bonus pool much higher than the $2.9 million they currently have. International free agent pools will be increased or decreased according to last years final standings (similar to how the Rule 4 amateur draft is currently constructed), so if the Astros sign Otani, they could be forfeiting millions for 2013.
Another thing to consider is that Japanese baseball players are, by and large, risky bets. (Does the name Kazuo Matsui ring a bell?) The hope is that someone like Otani could develop in to a star, but the possibility he could completely wash-out (either due to the difficulties of his pitching talents not developing or just the inability to adapt to an entirely different culture) is completely possible. Injuries are another big concern here. Pitch counts in Japan are still more a suggestion than a guideline, so it’s not uncommon to see amateur pitchers throw 140, 170, or as many as 200 pitches in an outing. Otani, himself, threw a 173 pitch outing this year and it’s very likely this is not the first time his arm has been taxed like this. For a high-effort pitcher, this could spell injury trouble down the line.
But let’s skip past the aforementioned stuff and assume all are systems go. The biggest factor, and one that could make Otani the longest of long shots, is that the Astros currently have very little presence in the Pacific Rim. I assume this is true based on the fact the team hasn’t a Pac Rim scouting department since Glen Barker, who headed the position since its inception in 2008, was let go a couple of years. The fact the Rangers, Red Sox, and Dodgers (teams being mentioned as the frontrunners for Otani’s services) have had a history of pulling talent from Asia, and that all three have had some face time with Otani, cannot be undersold.
With the Houston Astros already fielding the lowest projected opening day payroll in 2013, and the team coming in to significant TV money as part of the new CSN Houston, the team does have some money to spend. Starting pitching depth is one of the few areas where the Astros farm could significantly improve and adding someone like Otani would certainly help that area. However, there are major obstacles in trying to sign a talent like Shohei Otani—and potential repercussions for the organization in doing so. Does the risk outweigh the reward? Ultimately, there is no right or wrong answer here.