Shohei Otani is coming to the United States next season, and everyone’s freaking out.
Not that you shouldn’t freak out about Otani coming over: He’s awesome. Otani is the best pitcher to come out of Nippon Professional Baseball since Yu Darvish—perhaps even better—in addition to being one of the best hitters in NPB. Otani is a two-way star who’s proved himself against the toughest competition baseball has to offer outside of MLB, and while he wants to play both ways and would likely make the opportunity to do so part of his decision-making calculus, he’s a potential no. 1 starter. Players this good just don’t make it to free agency anymore, and they definitely don’t make it to free agency at age 23. With his skill, versatility, and age, Otani might be the most valuable unattached baseball player since Alex Rodriguez’s first free agent go-around after the 2000 season.
Of course, under MLB’s dystopian international bonus rules, Otani—a player under the age of 25 and with fewer than six years of professional experience—can’t make what he’s worth. Any signing bonus paid to Otani would count against the international bonus pool, which comes in between $4.75 million and $5.75 million per team and can be increased through trades by up to 75 percent. But unlike under the previous CBA, there’s no room to exceed the cap and pay penalties later, so the biggest bonus Otani could possibly get is a shade over $10 million, if a team with the highest cap traded for the most possible cap room and signed no other international amateur free agents. That’s as opposed to, well, Masahiro Tanaka, who was two years older when he came over than Otani is now and got seven years and $155 million four years ago. The bidding would likely start there were Otani older. Twelve teams—the Braves, Cubs, White Sox, Reds, Astros, Royals, Dodgers, A’s, Cardinals, Padres, Giants, and Nationals—can offer a signing bonus of only $300,000 as a penalty for violating the cap under the previous CBA.
That’s not all. MLB is on the lookout for teams that may violate the spirit of the rule by promising Otani a contract extension closer to his market value (or giving him a $300,000 signing bonus but a base salary of $25 million during his pre-arbitration year) and will crack down on violators, so Otani’s going to make the league minimum or close to it through 2020 no matter who signs him.
This sucks for Otani; these rules will cost more than $100 million over his career if he’s anywhere near as good as advertised, but it also means that money is no object. It’s not just a matter of the Dodgers and Yankees hoping they have the better nine-figure offer; all 30 teams can afford Otani. Since no team can offer him more than middle-reliever money, Otani might be less inclined than usual to make money his top priority, since he’s getting so thoroughly hosed regardless of where he lands.
That means every single partisan baseball fan in North America can talk themselves into their team being the right fit for Otani—and not just because of money, but because their team is morally superior. So let’s go there: Here’s an argument for why Otani should sign with each of the 30 MLB teams.
Arizona Diamondbacks: Otani’s Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters are no strangers to weird uniforms, and Arizona is the most fashion-forward club in the league.
Atlanta Braves: Anyone can sign on with the Dodgers or Cleveland and walk into World Series contention, but the Braves have one of the best farm systems in baseball—if not the best—and getting in with them now is like buying Amazon stock in the late 1990s.
Baltimore Orioles: It’s not that hard for a pitcher as talented as Otani to make it in the big leagues. But only a special pitcher can overcome the 25-year hex on young Orioles starters to achieve stardom. Pitching for the Orioles is like playing Oregon Trail as the farmer; it’s a good way to prove how hardcore you are.
Boston Red Sox: Great outfield defense will make Otani look even better, plus David Price has set a low bar for what the local media expects of Red Sox pitchers.
Chicago Cubs: Sure, the Cubs offer a great shot at a title, a great defense, and more media attention than most teams. And they can make Otani the co-ace with Jon Lester if Jake Arrieta walks, but many teams can offer wins and celebrity. The Cubs alone can offer access to Eddie Vedder. Is Pearl Jam big in Japan? Because if Otani likes Pearl Jam, there’s no better place for him to go.
Chicago White Sox: All the hipster cred of joining the Braves before it was cool to join the Braves, plus all the Portillo’s hot dogs you can eat.
Cincinnati Reds: After spending his entire professional career in Sapporo, Otani might feel at home in Cincinnati, which is known far and wide as the Sapporo of the Ohio River Valley. [Commissions “Cincinnati: The Sapporo of the Ohio River Valley” billboard along I-71.]
Cleveland Indians: Now that LeBron took the hex off Cleveland, this seems as good a place as any for a quick path to a ring. Plus, speaking of LeBron, Otani can hang out with him for a few months before he leaves for the Lakers next offseason, and, after that, playing for Terry Francona means all the popsicles you can eat.
Colorado Rockies: Coors Field might bother Otani less than any other pitcher on the planet, since he slugged .588 in 2016 and is slugging .560 in 2017. Denver is also the highest-ranked MLB city on U.S. News & World Report’s list of the best places to live.
Detroit Tigers: Otani won’t be making that much money no matter what, but what he does make will go far in Detroit. The MLB minimum salary for 2018 is $555,000, and CNN Money’s cost-of-living calculator says that’s the equivalent of making almost $1.3 million in Manhattan.
Houston Astros: Not only are the Astros competitive now and set up well to compete in the near future, Otani would be able to commiserate with José Altuve about being outrageously underpaid.
Kansas City Royals: Sure, the Royals are set to lose Eric Hosmer, Alcides Escobar, Lorenzo Cain, Mike Moustakas, Jason Vargas, and Melky Cabrera this winter, but since everyone’s moving out, that’s going to make it easy for Otani to find a place to live.
Los Angeles Angels:
Look at this smile. You can’t say no to this smile.
Los Angeles Dodgers: Some of these arguments are creative at best, but the Dodgers offer an easier path to the World Series than any other team in MLB.
Miami Marlins: If Otani signs with the Marlins, I can guarantee he’ll be traded wherever he wants to go soon.
Milwaukee Brewers: The Brewers’ window wasn’t supposed to open for another year or two, and yet here they are, 79-70 and a hot weekend out of playoff position. Now feels like a good time to buy stock. And people dump on Milwaukee, but it’s a nice city, particularly in the summer. Even if Otani doesn’t like the cold, he can always live elsewhere during the offseason.
Minnesota Twins: Having Byron Buxton in center field would make Otani look great, and the Twins have been so short on power pitchers that Ervin Santana looks like the second coming of Walter Johnson. If Otani comes over and starts striking out a batter an inning, Minnesotans are going to be carving idols in his image by Memorial Day.
New York Mets: So why would Otani want to live in New York and not only not play for the Yankees but also risk angering the golem that’s been cutting down Mets pitchers all year? Maybe … he’s got some long-standing grudge against Masahiro Tanaka? Maybe he wants to have his name on the back of his jersey? We’ll find something.
New York Yankees: Come on, guys. It’s the Yankees.
Oakland Athletics: Want to be a big fish in a small pond? This is the place to go.
Philadelphia Phillies: There isn’t a person on the planet, apart from Tommy Lasorda, who doesn’t want to cultivate a close, personal friendship with the Phanatic.
Pittsburgh Pirates: The Pirates play in the National League—which means Otani would get to hit no matter what—in a pretty ballpark, and Pittsburgh has more creative culinary uses for the potato than any other city in North America. If that doesn’t matter to Otani now, it will once he finds out about pierogi.
San Diego Padres: Petco Park is a pitcher’s park in a beautiful city, in the National League—and the Padres toyed with having Christian Bethancourt pitch this year, so who knows? And nobody pays attention to the Padres, so if Otani does wind up being bad, we’ll never know.
San Francisco Giants: Taylor Swift is either unwilling or (in a post–“Look What You Made Me Do” world) unable to guarantee a World Series in 2018, but the Giants can offer Otani two other important perks: First, he’d get to throw to Buster Posey, and second, since Otani would be his teammate, they’re the only team that can guarantee Madison Bumgarner won’t try to fight him.
Seattle Mariners: The Mariners, partially owned by Nintendo of America, have long been one of the end points of the pipeline from NPB to the United States. Ichiro, Kaz Sasaki, Shigetoshi Hasegawa, Kenji Johjima, and Hisashi Iwakuma all had success in Seattle.
St. Louis Cardinals: If they don’t make a Japanese edition of the Cardinal Way already, I’m sure it can be arranged.
Tampa Bay Rays: If Otani’s interested in playing both ways, the Rays might be willing to let him do that. They just spent the no. 4 overall pick on Louisville pitcher–first baseman Brendan McKay, and McKay’s going to play both ways until he proves he can’t make it as either a pitcher or a hitter. Why not build the whole team out of two-way players?
Texas Rangers: The Otani–Yu Darvish dynamic is a little more complicated than it might seem, but Darvish is the best Japanese pitcher to come over, and his relationship with the Rangers worked out well over the course of six years. And even if that weren’t the case, Arlington seems to be a fun place to work.
Toronto Blue Jays: I’m not sure I’d want to move to the United States in 2018. This is the only team that offers Major League Baseball outside the U.S.
Washington Nationals: If Otani signs with Washington, he won’t have to face Bryce Harper, Anthony Rendon, or Daniel Murphy as a pitcher, or Max Scherzer, Gio González, or Stephen Strasburg as a hitter. Sometimes the smartest thing to do is just make life a little easier for yourself.