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What are the Rays chances of signing Shohei Otani?

Japan v Netherlands - International Friendly Photo by Masterpress/Getty Images

Japanese Superstar Shohei Otani is likely coming to America, so we started the offseason with a full write up on what he’s capable of. Now let’s talk about the Rays chances of actually landing the two-way phenom.

It all starts with the recent rule changes around international signings. Here’s what I wrote about the rule changes in my previous article:

The biggest rule change in the newest CBA that affects Otani is the fact that a player has to be 25 with five or more years of experience in a recognized foreign league.

In the last CBA the age limit was 23 and would allow him to negotiate any contract he wanted after the team paid a $20MM posting fee. Teams still have to pay the $20MM posting fee, but he can only be signed to a minor league deal and the signing bonus will count against their international free agent bonus pool with a $6MM cap. Otani would be subject to the standard three years of league minimum pay and three years of arbitration with no guaranteed money outside of the bonus.

Teams skirt the rules all the time in the IFA market, but should Otani be posted there will be a lot of scrutiny surrounding the signing process. Teams aren’t allowed to promise anything such as guaranteeing he’s on the MLB roster on day one or a contract extension once he’s signed. Teams are going to try everything they can for the highest profile and potentially biggest impact signing that could be available this winter. Almost every team has had very high ranking front office personnel see him live and will show a lot of interest.

Because of the new rules the chances of Otani joining the Rays are not zero.

This isn’t a situation where Masahiro Tanaka signed a 7/$155MM contract with the Yankees on top of a $20MM posting fee or Yu Darvish signed a 6/$56MM deal after winning a blind bid of $51.7MM.

The initial commitment, while still substantial at $26MM, it is something the Rays can manage.

The Rays can afford Otani

Marc Topkin reported the Rays interest is “sincere.” That’s a start. If the front office doesn’t have the ability to pay $26MM their interest is really nothing, so this comment presumes the Rays are capable of shelling out for Japan’s superstar.

Otani has been on record of saying he doesn’t care about money and has even chosen to pitch in lower profile places in the past. If he decides to be posted for transfer to the U.S., he’ll live up to those words. He’s potentially giving up $150-200MM+ by not waiting until after he turns 25 in 2019 to come over here.

There are 12 teams that are limited to a $300,000 maximum signing bonus due to going over their IFA bonus pools the last two years. The Rays would have to trade for some spending capacity after signing Wander Franco to a $3.825MM bonus. The Rays had a $5.25MM cap and are able to trade for another $4MM in spending capability, so all in their cap would be around $5.5MM.

The McKay Effect?

The Rays are hopeful that their drafting of Brendan McKay and willingness to allow him to play both sides of the ball give them some advantage. I’m skeptical this has any real effect, but it’s a narrative that keeps coming up. I don’t expect the noise around this to lessen, but at worst it can’t hurt the Rays chances.

The Rays did sign Akinori Iwamura in a similar process

In the 2006-2007 off-season Akinori Iwamura was posted by the Tokyo Yakult Swallows. Back then there was a closed bidding process for the posting fee without a maximum where the winner was awarded the rights to negotiate a MLB contract. The Rays won with a $4.5MM posting fee and signed Iwamura to a three year contract worth $7.7MM with a $4.25MM team option. The Rays guaranteed over $12MM for three years of control for a lesser talent over a decade ago.

Iwamura, who enjoyed his time in Tampa Bay, could be used as a delegate to make a pitch for the Rays franchise.

It’s the American League

Otani is more likely to sign with an American League team. He has played in the outfield in the past with 62 career games in the NPB, but he hasn’t played in the outfield since 2014 when he played six games. He’s been a designated hitter ever since when not pitching. This is another positive.


Nobody outside of Otani knows what he values and what it’ll take to land him. The Rays are in as good a position as any which is unusual when you’re talking about the off-season’s biggest prize.

So yes, the Rays have a reasonable chance. It would be smarter to bet on the field, but there’s reason to believe the Rays have as good a chance as anybody else.