Saturday Links: Otani, Draft Info, Mock Drafts, Old Timers’ Day

Otani. (Presswire)
Otani. (Presswire)

The Yankees and Orioles continue their weekend series later tonight, with a 7:15pm ET game. Boy, I sure do hate Saturday night games. Anyway, until then, check out Jorge Posada’s letter to his younger self at The Players’ Tribune, then check out these stray bits of news.

Latest on Shohei Otani

Earlier this week Jeff Passan posted a bit of an update on Nippon Ham Fighters ace/slugger Shohei Otani, the best player in the world not under contract with one of the 30 big league teams. Otani is only 22, which means he would be subject to the international bonus hard cap if he were to come over to MLB this offseason. Waiting until he’s 25 would allow him to sign a contract of any size. Anyway, the important details from Passan:

  • There is “significant skepticism” that Otani will come over to MLB this winter. Teams estimate his market value right now, at age 22, at at least $200M. Market value is not the same thing as earning potential, of course.
  • MLB is expected to be “vigilant to ensure the sanctity of the system is not made a mockery by extralegal payments,” meaning a team couldn’t give Otani a long-term contract shortly after signing him, thereby circumventing the hard cap.
  • AL teams believe they have an inside track to sign Otani because they can let him DH between starts. NL teams are wary of letting him play the outfield when he’s not on the mound.

Otani, by the way, has been hampered by a nagging ankle issue this season. He has yet to pitch and only recently did he return to the lineup as a designated hitter. He’s hitting .407/.469/.815 with five doubles and two homers in eight games so far.

My guess — and this is only a guess — is Otani will not come over to MLB this winter. I think he’ll instead announce his intention to come over next offseason, allowing teams to get their international bonus money situation in order. Right now, just about every team has agreements in place with Latin American players for July 2nd, leaving them no money for Otani over the winter. We’ll see.

Latest Mock Drafts

With the draft two days away, the consensus right now is the Twins will select Vanderbilt RHP Kyle Wright with the first overall pick. That allows California HS SS/RHP Hunter Greene, the unanimous No. 1 prospect in the draft class, to slip to the Reds with the second pick, or maybe even the Padres with the third pick. Anyway, here are the latest mock drafts and their Yankees’ picks:

In the FanGraphs write-up Eric Longenhagen notes the Yankees have had “special assistants” in to see Rogers, though I should note that isn’t unusual for any player under first round consideration. Baseball America says the Yankees have been “linked to college arms all spring, but (they) also could go for the right college bat.” MLB.com links them to California HS 1B Nick Pratto (RAB profile) in addition to Canning and Rogers.

(Self-Promotion: I posted a mock draft at CBS that is little more than educated guesswork, so check that out. I’m not going to tell you who I have the Yankees taking. No, I’m not above begging for clicks.)

(Matthew Ziegler/Getty)
(Matthew Ziegler/Getty)

Swisher, Boucher to represent Yankees at draft

Last week MLB announced the representatives for all 30 teams for Monday’s draft broadcast on MLB Network. Nick Swisher and Denis Boucher are representing the Yankees. Here are every team’s representatives. Swisher is Swisher. He played for the Yankees from 2009-12 and was very productive. He’ll go down as one of Brian Cashman‘s greatest trades. Also, when Swisher left as a free agent, the Yankees used the compensation draft pick to select Aaron Judge. That trade is the gift that keeps on giving.

Boucher has been with the Yankees since 2010 and he more or less runs their amateur scouting in Eastern Canada. His MLB playing career was brief (1991-94 with the Blue Jays, Indians, Expos) and since then he’s worked to grow the game in Canada. Boucher has coached Canadian Olympic teams, in the World Baseball Classic, and a bunch of other international tournaments. He’s also been involved in developing Canada’s youth baseball program. Certainly not a household name, but Boucher has done a lot to promote the game north of the border. Pretty cool the Yankees are rewarding him with a trip to the draft.

Also, I should note MLB has announced four prospects will attend the draft Monday: Greene, Rogers, Kentucky HS OF Jordon Adell (RAB profile), and Alabama HS OF Bubba Thompson (RAB profile). Would be kinda cool if the Yankees picked a kid actually at the draft, no? Judge and Ian Clarkin were there for the 2013 draft, remember.

Yankees announce Old Timers’ Day roster

Old Timers’ Day is Sunday, June 25th this year — two weeks from tomorrow — and a few days ago the Yankees announced the list of attendees. Here’s the press release. Most are the usual suspects. Whitey Ford, Reggie Jackson, Paul O’Neill, Ron Guidry, etc. The guys we see every Old Timers’ Day. The most notable first time Old Timer is Jorge Posada. He’s the first member of the Core Four (groan) to attend Old Timers’ Day. Neat.

Also, during the Old Timers’ Day festivities, the Yankees will hold a special ceremony to honor new Hall of Famer Tim Raines. Raines is going into the Hall of Fame as an Expo (duh), but he was an incredibly productive platoon outfielder with the Yankees from 1996-98. Rock hit .299/.395/.429 (120 wRC+) with 18 homers and 26 steals in 940 plate appearances those years, his age 36-38 seasons. Pretty awesome.

Saturday Links: Posting System, IFAs, Sanchez, All-Star Game

Otani. (Masterpress/Getty)
Otani. (Masterpress/Getty)

The Yankees and Cubs continue their three-game weekend series with the middle game today, though not until 7pm ET. Weekend night games are just the worst. Here are some notes to check out as you wait for first pitch.

MLB seeks to revise posting agreement with NPB

According to report out of Japan, Major League Baseball has applied to renegotiate a provision in their posting agreement with Nippon Pro Baseball. That’s the system used to bring players from Japan over to MLB. Apparently MLB wants to reduce the maximum release fee, which is currently $20M. The owners are trying to cut costs? I’m shocked. Shocked I tell you. The two sides will reportedly discuss the matter Monday.

MLB managed to get NPB to agree to an overhauled posting system four years ago, conveniently right before Masahiro Tanaka came over. The old system was a blind auction, and the team that made the high bid won the player’s negotiating rights. Under the new system, the player is allowed to negotiate with every team like a true free agent, and only the team that signs him has to pay the release fee. That’s how the Yankees landed Tanaka.

So, the last time a significant player was set to come over (Tanaka), MLB was able to change the system to lower costs. (The Rangers won the rights to Yu Darvish with a massive $51.7M bid under the old system years ago.) Now another significant player (Shohei Otani) is expected to come to MLB soon, and they want to lower costs again. A sense a pattern.

Yankees expected to sign three top international free agents

MLB.com released their top 30 prospects for the 2017-18 international signing period earlier this week, and according to the write-ups, the Yankees are expected to sign three of those top 30 players: Venezuelan OF Everson Pereira (No. 4 on the top 30), Dominican 2B Ronny Rojas (No. 11), and Venezuelan OF Roberto Chirinos (No. 16). You can read the scouting reports for free at the MLB.com link. We’ve heard the Yankees connected to Pereira before. The international signing period opens July 2nd, as always.

A few things about the 2017-18 IFA signing period. One, the Yankees can spend again! The penalties from the 2014-15 spending spree, which limited the Yankees to a maximum bonus of $300,000 in the 2015-16 and 2016-17 signing periods, have expired. Two, this is the first signing period with the hard cap, and the Yankees only have $4.75M to spend. Not a penny more. That stinks. And three, this is potential the Otani signing period. He’ll be subject to the hard cap because he is not yet 25 years old. His earning potential is severely limited at the moment.

Based on the write-ups, several other potential Otani suitors (Red Sox, Cubs, Blue Jays, Mariners, etc.) are expected to sign some of MLB.com’s top 30 international prospects, indicating they are not saving their bonus money for Otani. Others like the Dodgers, Giants, Astros, Nationals, and Cardinals will be limited to $300,000 bonuses as part of the penalties for past international spending. Is anyone going to have hard cap space left for Otani? Assuming teams following through on their agreements with international amateurs, there might not be any money left over. Hmmm.

Sanchez has top selling AL jersey

Gary & 'Hiro. (Elsa/Getty)
Gary & ‘Hiro. (Elsa/Getty)

Two weeks ago MLB and the MLBPA announced their annual top selling player jerseys list based on online sales since the end of the 2016 World Series. Here is the press release. You will be surprised to learn the defending World Series champion Cubs dominate the top of the list:

  1. Kris Bryant, Cubs
  2. Anthony Rizzo, Cubs
  3. Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers
  4. Javier Baez, Cubs
  5. Kyle Schwarber, Cubs

Gary Sanchez ranks ninth on the best selling jerseys list overall, but is first among AL players. He’s one spot ahead of Mike Trout and five spots ahead of Mookie Betts. Sanchez, Trout, Betts, Francisco Lindor, Jose Altuve, Dustin Pedroia, and Josh Donaldson are the only AL players in the top 20. The list is decidedly NL (and Cubs) heavy. Pretty cool that Sanchez is so popular already. I guess doing what he did last year has a way of creating attention.

Over the last week, however, Aaron Judge has the third best selling player jersey behind Bryant and Rizzo, according to Buster Olney. The Yankees should have give away Aaron Judge-sized Aaron Judge shirts at a game one day as a promotion. That would be pretty cool.

All-Star Game voting opens

Voting for the 2017 All-Star Game starters is now open. They get a really early start on this each season. The ballot is right here. You can vote pretty much an unlimited number of times, though you’ll need different email addresses. On merit, both Aaron Judge and Starlin Castro legitimately deserve All-Star votes right now. Will they in two months? I sure hope so. I doesn’t really matter though. Royals fans are going to stuff the ballot like they always do anyway. Looking forward to seeing Eric Hosmer at first base, you guys.

It’s sounding more and more like Shohei Otani will come over to MLB after this season

(Atsushi Tomura/Getty)
It’s both Otani and Ohtani. (Atsushi Tomura/Getty)

Through seven games this season, it couldn’t be any more obvious the Yankees have some work to do to build a pitching staff going forward. Even while acknowledging Masahiro Tanaka is not really this bad, the fact is he can opt-out after the season, and who knows what happens after that. Michael Pineda and CC Sabathia will be free agents too. The kids are promising but unproven.

The most interesting name on the free agent pitching market for the foreseeable future will be Nippon Ham Fighters ace Shohei Otani, the 22-year-old who throws 100 mph when he pitches and socks dingers when he doesn’t. Otani recently suffered a thigh strain running out a ground ball and will miss six weeks, though that shouldn’t affect his stock going forward. Muscle pulls happen. It just means scouts won’t be able to see him for a few weeks.

Otani appeared on 60 Minutes this past weekend, and while he stopped short of saying he will come over to MLB this offseason, he did say, “Personally, I don’t care how much I get paid, or how much less I get paid, because of this,” which seemed to acknowledge baseball’s silly international hard cap. Because he is under 25, Otani is subject to the hard cap, which limits each team’s annual international spending to $4.75M to $5.75M.

The (Ham) Fighters, for what it’s worth, will post Otani whenever he decides to come over to MLB, according to Jon Wertheim. From Wertheim:

While neither party will confirm the particulars, the team clearly seems to have made an agreement with the Ohtani family: When Shohei was ready to declare yosh ganbarimasu (“I’m gonna go for it”), the Fighters would not stand in his way. Rather, they would agree to “post” him, taking the negotiated fee from a major league team (currently $20 million), relinquishing his rights and wishing him well.

Their agreement reportedly dates back a while. Otani flirted with the idea of coming over to MLB as an 18-year-old out of high school a few years ago a la Junichi Tazawa, but the (Ham) Fighters convinced him to stay and agreed to post him for MLB clubs when the time comes. This will be his fifth season in Japan, and I can’t imagine he wants to stay much longer. He won a championship and was named MVP last year. What’s left to accomplish?

The natural reaction is to think once Otani decides to come over — and it sure sounds like it could happen this offseason — the Yankees should go after him hard because pitchers this young and this talented are hard to find. The Yankees are in the middle of a youth movement and Otani would fit right in as the pitching center piece. A few problems with that though:

  1. The hard cap evens the playing field. The Yankees can only offer Otani whatever they have in international money, which is $4.75M. That’s assuming they don’t sign any Latin American players on July 2nd, and supposedly the club already has some agreements in place. The Yankees can’t flex their financial muscle and blow everyone away with an offer.
  2. Does he want to hit? I’m guessing yes. So the real question is will the Yankees let him hit? Otani’s decision could very well come down to a team agreeing to let him hit and pitch. Start every fifth day and then DH a few times between starts. That’s risky, man. Imagine losing your ace because he gets hit by a pitch or pulls a muscle running the bases, which is exactly what happened with this recently thigh injury.
  3. Otani is said to prefer the West Coast. Supposedly Otani prefers the West Coast because it’s closer to home, though it’s unclear how much of a priority that really is for him. Tanaka was said to prefer the West Coast too, remember. Just something to keep in mind.

As much as the Yankees could use a young power starter like Otani to continue their youth movement, this isn’t a matter of simply wanting him and bidding. The international hard cap levels the playing field, and Otani’s potential preferences of the West Coast and being allowed to hit complicate things. In the past, the Yankees could up the ante and pay more to lure players. They can’t do that in this situation.

I’m really curious to see how teams approach the July 2nd international signing period. Do they do nothing and save their bonus pool money in hopes Otani is posted? That’s really risky. You could end up with no international talent during the 2017-18 signing period — or at least no high-end talent — and no Otani either. Keep in mind several big market teams like the Cubs, Dodgers, Nationals, Giants, Astros, and Cardinals are basically out on Otani. They’re limited to the $300,000 bonus maximum this coming offseason due to past international spending.

The Yankees can offer Otani the opportunity to be a part-time designated hitter — he’s a lefty with pull power! — and hey, playing for the Yankees comes with some pretty great endorsement opportunities. That’s pretty much the only thing that separates them from the pack now. The signing bonus playing field is level. I’d love to see the Yankees get Otani — or a similar high-end young starter — though the more time that passes, the more I feel like things stack up against them.

Yankees pursued Mexican League righty Hector Velazquez

(AP)
(AP)

According to Evan Drellich, the Yankees pursued Mexican League right-hander Hector Velazquez before he signed with the Red Sox earlier this month. This wasn’t exactly the second coming of the Jose Contreras chase, though the two AL East financial superpowers were after the same Latin American pitcher. Boston purchased Velazquez’s contract from his Mexican League team and he is in camp as a non-roster player.

“After the Caribbean Series they told me that the Red Sox were interested,” said Velazquez to Drellich. “So I spoke to (their scouts) and they told me about their interest in me. And then soon after, Campeche, which is the team that I play for, told me that the Yankees were also interested. The way things in work in Mexico is, Campeche is the one who decides exactly who do you go to. They asked me at the end of the day who I wanted to go to, and I chose the Red Sox because they were the first ones to come to me and reach out.”

Velazquez, who turned 28 in November, had a 2.46 ERA with 120 strikeouts and only 16 walks in 131.1 innings in the Mexican League last season. His career numbers aren’t nearly as good — Velazquez has a 4.01 ERA and a 2.05 K/BB in 1,019.2 innings career innings, all in Mexico — but this is a “what have you done for me lately” game, and Velazquez was pretty great last summer. Here’s some video.

By no means is Velazquez a top prospect or anything like that. He’s a just turned 28-year-old right-hander who had a lot of success in a league roughly equivalent to Triple-A last season, and when players do what he did, teams notice. The Yankees made a run at Velazquez and the Red Sox beat them to it. C’est la vie.

More than anything, this is a reminder the Yankees leave basically no stone unturned when it comes to looking for pitching depth. They rolled the dice on a successful Mexican League right-hander nine years ago and were rewarded with 84 pretty excellent relief innings from Al Aceves in 2009. Perhaps Velazquez could have been have provided similar impact. Alas.

The 2017-18 international free agent class and the Shohei Otani question

(Atsushi Tomura/Getty)
(Atsushi Tomura/Getty)

For years and years and years, the Yankees built their farm system through international free agency. They were in contention every year and forfeiting their low first round picks to sign top free agents all the time, though they were able to spend freely in international free agency to compensate. That’s why so many of their top prospects from 1998-2012 or so were international signees. Alfonso Soriano, Wily Mo Pena, Robinson Cano, Chien-Ming Wang, Melky Cabrera, Jesus Montero, and so on.

Nowadays teams can’t spend freely internationally. The new Collective Bargaining Agreement implemented a hard spending cap. Under the just completed CBA, each team was given a set bonus pool and punished harshly if they exceeded it. It was a soft cap. Three years ago the Yankees blew their bonus pool out of the water and signed many of the best available players. Four of my top 30 prospects were part of the 2014-15 international signing class.

As a result of that spending spree, the Yankees had to pay a 100% tax on every penny they spent over their bonus pool — the total payout between bonuses and taxes was north of $30M — plus they were unable to sign a player for more than $300,000 during both the 2015-16 and 2016-17 international signing periods. That restriction will be lifted when the 2017-18 international signing period begins July 2nd. Hooray for that.

Earlier this week Ben Badler (subs. req’d) reported the Yankees, who have a $4.75M international cap this year, have been connected to Venezuelan center fielder Everson Periera in advance of the 2017-18 signing period. I can’t find much on the kid at all, but apparently he’s a big deal. Here’s some video:

The Yankees and every other team have been scouting international players for years, and I’m certain there are some contract agreements already in place even though they aren’t allowed. It happens all the time. Badler is the best in the business, and if he says the Yankees are connected to Periera, I not only don’t doubt him one bit, I assume the two sides already have some kind of deal in place.

The international hard cap really stinks, especially for the kids, though at least the Yankees will be able to hand out large bonuses to talented kids like Periera again. Being limited to $300,000 bonuses the last two signing periods stunk. The big question to me right now is not necessarily who will the Yankee sign on July 2nd. It’s how are the Yankees planning for Shohei Otani, if at all?

Otani, as you surely know, is the best player in the world not under contract with an MLB team. He threw 140 innings with a 1.86 ERA and 174 strikeouts for the Nippon Ham Fighters last year while also hitting .322/.416/.588 with 22 homers. Most agree Otani’s long-term future lies on the mound because he has ace potential. For now, he’s a monster two-way player for the (Ham) Fighters.

Otani has expressed interest in coming over to MLB as soon as next offseason, though because he is only 22, he will be subject to the international hard cap. He’d have to wait three years until he’s 25 to be able to sign for any amount like a true free agent. Should Otani be posted after this coming season, all 30 clubs figure to shovel their remaining international cap space in front of him and hope it’s enough to sign him. What else could you do?

If you’re the Yankees — or any other team, for that matter — do you pass on Periera and everyone else on July 2nd and instead conserve your international cap space for Otani in the offseason? It’s awfully risky. Otani is not guaranteed to be posted. You’re walking away from the top international talent in July with no assurances Otani will be available after the season, and even if he is available, it’s far from a guarantee you’ll sign him. The odds of ending up with no talent and a bunch of international money burning a hole in your pocket is quite high.

At the same time, Otani is so insanely talented that you’d hate to take yourself out of the market for a big league ready impact player to sign a bunch of 16-year-old kids who are years away from reaching MLB. (The Yankees signed Gary Sanchez, a top international prospect, in July 2009 and it wasn’t until August 2016 that he reached the show for good, so yeah.) Otani would fit New York’s youth movement so well. He’d be the young rotation cornerstone they need going forward.

There’s always a chance the (Ham) Fighters will announce in advance they’re going to post Otani after the season, but I can’t remember that ever happening. If anything, it’s usually the opposite. We wait weeks and weeks in the offseason waiting for the team to decide whether to post the player. That’s what happened with Masahiro Tanaka and Yu Darvish. We didn’t know for sure they would be posted until their teams actually posted them.

I can’t imagine the (Ham) Fighters want to announce they’re moving their best player after the season ahead of time. That won’t sit well with fans. Then again, perhaps they could make a great event out of it and have a big farewell tour. That’d be kinda cool. Point is, it’s far from certain Otani will be available after the season. He may decide to wait out the next three years, make good money in Japan, then come over to MLB when he’s 25 and no longer subject to the international hard cap.

That the Yankees are already connected to a guy like Periera indicates they plan on approaching the 2017-18 international free agency period as if it’s business as usual. Badler’s report says eleven other clubs, including traditional big international spenders like the Red Sox, Mariners, and Blue Jays, are also connected to Latin American players for the 2017-18 signing period, so the Yankees aren’t the only team taking this approach.

(The Athletics, Astros, Braves, Cardinals, Cubs, Dodgers, Giants, Nationals, Padres, Reds, and Royals will all be limited to $300,000 bonuses during the 2017-18 international free agency period as a result of past spending, so that’s the max they could offer Otani next offseason.)

My guess right now is that, despite the rumblings, Otani will not be posted next winter. The max bonus he can receive under the international hard cap is only a touch more than his projected salary with the (Ham) Fighters in 2018. He could remain in Japan until 2019, make close to what he’d make in MLB in the meantime, then come over when he can sign a monster contract at 25. The Yankees and plenty of other clubs seem to be proceeding as if that will be the case.

Thursday Notes: Mendoza, Montgomery, Prospect Lists

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The seemingly never-ending offseason continues. I guess the good news is the Yankees’ first Grapefruit League game is four weeks from tomorrow, and yes, that game will be broadcast on the YES Network. Four weeks and one day until actual baseball is on your television. It’ll be glorious. I’ll post the full Spring Training broadcast schedule once all the networks announce their plans. Until then, here are some newsy nuggets to check out.

Hector Mendoza declared a free agent

Cuban right-hander Hector Mendoza has been declared a free agent by MLB, reports Jesse Sanchez. Sanchez says Mendoza is expected to wait until his 23rd birthday on March 5th to sign, at which point he would be a true free agent unaffected by the international spending restrictions. Every team, including the Yankees and other clubs currently limited by international bonus penalties, would be able to sign him to a contract of any size at that point.

Back in April 2015, Ben Badler (subs. req’d) ranked Mendoza as the 12th best prospect in Cuba, one spot ahead of current Dodgers farmhand Yasiel Sierra. “At his best, he throws 90-94 mph with downhill plane, with solid strike-throwing ability and fastball command for his age … His 76-80 mph curveball is a solid-average pitch,” says the two-year-old scouting report. It also mentions Mendoza features a changeup and figures to start long-term.

Sierra signed a six-year deal worth $30M last February — he then pitched to 5.89 ERA (4.26 FIP) in 88.2 innings split between High-A and Double-A last year, and reportedly didn’t impress scouts either — so I guess that’s the benchmark for Mendoza. The Yankees have steered clear of the big money Cuban player market the last few seasons, so I’m not expecting them to get involved. And, frankly, I didn’t even know the guy existed until a few days ago.

Teams asking for Montgomery in trades

According to George King (subs. req’d), Brian Cashman confirmed teams have asked for left-hander Jordan Montgomery in trade talks this offseason. “He is a starter and left-handed. His name comes up,” said the GM. Not only that, but Montgomery has already has success at Triple-A (albeit in 37 innings) and is close to MLB ready, making him even more desirable. Here’s my prospect profile.

It can be really easy to overlook a guy like Montgomery given the strength and depth of the Yankees’ farm system, but he’s come a long way as a prospect the last few seasons. He’s added a cutter and also gained quite a bit of velocity, going from 88-91 mph in college to 93-95 mph in 2016. The Yankees seem to have a knack for getting guys to add velocity. Their throwing program must be good. We’ll see Montgomery in the Bronx in 2017. I’m sure of it.

MLB.com’s top prospects by position

Over the last few days MLB.com has been releasing their annual positional prospect lists. That is, the ten best prospects at each position. Several Yankees farmhands make appearances on the various lists. Here’s a quick recap:

I’m a bit surprised the Yankees only had one player on the outfield list, but eh, whatever. The shortstop list is stacked as always. Torres is one spot ahead of Braves shortstop Dansby Swanson, the first overall pick in the 2015 draft. Mateo is one spot ahead of Twins shortstop Nick Gordon, the fifth overall pick in the 2014 draft.

James Kaprielian failing to crack the top ten righties shouldn’t be a surprise. He did miss just about the entire 2016 season, after all. Also, I’d be more bummed about not having a top catcher prospect if, you know, Gary Sanchez didn’t exit. But he does and that’s cool. Same thing with first base and Greg Bird. Landing five prospects in the various top ten lists is pretty cool.

Update: On Twitter, Jim Callis says Blake Rutherford ranks 14th among outfielders in MLB.com’s upcoming top 100 prospects list.

Spring Training is getting shorter

Starting in 2018, Spring Training will be a whole two days shorter, reports Ronald Blum. Huge news, eh? As part of the new Collective Bargaining Agreement the regular season will increase from 183 days to 187 days starting in 2018, and the shorter Spring Training will help make that happen. The goal was to add more off-days “in a way that doesn’t just chew up offseason days,” said MLBPA general counsel Matt Nussbaum.

The players have been pushing for more in-season off-days for a while now, and at one point they proposed shortening the season to 154 games. I’m not surprised that didn’t happen. The owners would be giving up four home games each, plus television contracts would have to be revised because they include a minimum number of broadcasts and things like that. Lots of logistical issues to work through. So anyway, two fewer days of Spring Training in two years. Yippee.

Mailbag: Other top NPB players who could come to MLB

The mailbag inbox was pretty empty this week thanks to the holidays. That’s okay, because every so often we get a great question that is worth its own post, and that was the case this week. So, rather than the usual multi-question format, we’ve got one question and one big answer this week. RABmailbag (at) gmail (dot) com is the place to send us questions.

Yamada. (Masterpress/Getty)
Yamada. (Masterpress/Getty)

Dan asks: Are there any other players on the Japanese market besides Otani that we can be excited about in the future?

There are definitely a few, but none come close to Shohei Otani in terms of potential big league impact. He is truly in a class all by himself right now. Otani is the best player in Japan and has the tools to be an ace-caliber pitcher in MLB, if not a reliable hitter as well. I’m curious to see if a team will let him hit and pitch when the time comes. That just might be what it takes to sign him.

Anyway, most of the top talent in Japan in terms of big league potential is on the mound right now. These things to tend to be cyclical, and right now there are more high-end arms than high-end bats. Check back in a few years and the opposite will probably be true. So, with that in mind, here are five non-Otani players in Nippon Pro Baseball who could interest MLB teams in the near future. This isn’t a comprehensive list. It’s just a few of the most notable. The players are listed alphabetically.

RHP Kohei Arihara

Arihara, 24, just finished his second season with the Nippon Ham Fighters, during which he had a 2.94 ERA with 103 strikeouts (16.1 K%) and 38 walks (5.9 BB%) in 22 starts and 156 innings. He runs his fastball up to 96 mph and uses a wide array of offspeed pitches, and while nothing he throws is a truly dominant offering, Arihara has good command and really knows how to pitch.

Arihara has gotten plenty of extra scouting exposure recently as Otani’s teammate. Once he gets some more experience under his belt — he missed time in college with elbow injury, which is obviously a red flag — Arihara will be a candidate to come over to MLB. His upside may be limited, but there’s a chance for mid-rotation production here.

RHP Shintaro Fujinami

Back in 2012, Otani and Fujinami were the top two prospects in the NPB draft, and plenty of folks at the time preferred Fujinami because his secondary pitchers were more advanced. Otani went first overall — Fujinami was selected by four teams in the first round, then was awarded to the Hanshin Tigers after a lottery drawing (the NPB draft is weird) — and has since developed into the better NPB player and MLB prospect, but Fujinami is damn good himself.

The 22-year-old Fujinami had a 3.25 ERA in 26 starts and 169 innings in 2016, striking out 176 (24.0 K%) and walking 70 (9.6 BB%). Control has been his biggest issue — he’s walked 9.2% of batters faced in his four NPB seasons — but he misses plenty of bats with a 92-95 mph fastball, a mid-80s splitter, and a low-80s slider. His 221 strikeouts a year ago were by far the most in the Central League, Japan’s non-DH league. Only one other player had more than 175 strikeouts. (Randy Messenger had 194.)

Fujinami is widely considered the second best MLB prospect in Japan, but he’s in the same boat as Otani. He’s only 22, which means he’ll be subject to the international hard cap for the next three years. Also, Fujinami is five years away from qualifying for international free agency, so he’ll have to go through the posting system to come over at any point before the 2021-22 offseason. It’s not only Otani who is getting screwed over by the hard cap.

LHP Yusei Kikuchi

A few years ago Kikuchi, now 25, was considering jumping to MLB straight out of high school, which would have been unprecedented. (Junichi Tazawa was undrafted out of high school, played one year in a Japanese independent league, then chose to forego NPB for MLB.) NPB doesn’t like the idea of the best young Japanese players not playing in Japan, so nowadays anyone who signs with an MLB team out of high school is banned from NPB for at least three years. Not surprisingly, no one has done it.

Anyway, Kikuchi has spent the last six seasons with the Seibu Lions and has career has been up and down, mostly due to shoulder problems. He had a 2.58 ERA with 127 strikeouts (21.3 K%) and 67 walks (11.3 K%) in 22 starts and 143 innings this past season, though the blazing mid-to-upper-90s fastball that made him such a hot commodity as a teenager now resides mostly in the low-90s. Kikuchi relies on his three offspeed pitches (curveball, slider, changeup) to get most of his outs these days.

It’s no secret Kikuchi wants to come over to MLB at some point — he met with several clubs, including the Yankees, back in 2009 when he considered coming over after high school — and since he’s 25, the international hard cap won’t apply to him. It’s up to Seibu to post him because he’s still three years from international free agency. Kikuchi is not the tippy top MLB prospect he was a few years ago, but lefties who can miss bats are always going to get a look.

RHP Takahiro Norimoto

Three years ago the 26-year-old Norimoto took over as staff ace of the Rakuten Golden Eagles after Masahiro Tanaka left via the posting system. His last two seasons have been eerily similar:

IP ERA Strikeouts Walks Homers
2015 194.2 2.91 215 (26.9%) 48 (6.0%) 14 (0.65 HR/9)
2016 195 2.91 216 (26.3%) 50 (6.1%) 12 (0.55 HR/9)

Freaky. Norimoto has big stuff but not big size. He’s listed at 5-foot-10 and 178 lbs., and fair or not, teams are always wary of undersized righties. Durability is a concern, and so is fastball plane. Teams worry short pitchers will be fly ball and home run prone because they can’t pitch downhill. Still, Norimoto has a mid-90s fastball and can miss bats with both his splitter and slider. That’ll play.

Norimoto signed a three-year extension worth $1.72M per season last month, so he’s not coming over to MLB anytime soon. That’s a shame. He wouldn’t have been subject to any international spending restrictions because of his age. Not the bonus pools this signing period or the hard cap that takes effect next signing period. Womp womp. Norimoto will be 29 before he’s eligible to come over to MLB.

IF Tetsuto Yamada

Over the last three years, and especially the last two, Yamada has established himself as one of the most dominant hitters in Japan. Last season he hit .329/.416/.610 with 38 home runs and 34 stolen bases en route to being named Central League MVP. He was the first player in NPB history to win both the home run and stolen base titles. Yamada also had a Reggie Jackson moment in the postseason, swatting three home runs in three consecutive plate appearances in Game Three of the Japan Series.

This past season the 24-year-old Yamada managed a .304/.425/.607 batting line with 38 homers and 30 stolen bases for the Yakult Swallows. He’s a right-handed hitter with tremendous bat speed and quick twitch athleticism, plus he knows how to control the strike zone (17.2 K% and 14.4 BB% from 2015-16). While going 30-30 in the big leagues might not happen, Yamada has 20-20 potential, which would be pretty damn valuable from a good defensive middle infielder. (Reports indicate he fits best at second.)

Yamada has supposedly expressed interest in coming over to MLB, and since he’ll turn 25 in July, he won’t be subject to the international hard cap next offseason. The Swallows can post him and Yamada can sign a contract of any size. Unless the posting agreement gets changed again, that is. MLB seems to like making it difficult for top overseas players to play in their league for whatever reason.

It’s worth noting most of the biggest busts among Japanese players in MLB have been infielders (Kaz Matsui, Tsuyoshi Nishioka, etc.), and I’ve seen speculation that the game is so much faster here that infielders have a tough time adjusting, and their defensive issues carry over at the plate. Who knows whether that’s true. There’s risk with every signing, and it is fair to wonder whether Yamada’s big leg kick will play over here. My guess is some team will bet millions on his power-speed combination.

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The Yankees have shown they will get involved in the Japanese market if there’s a player they really like, though they’re going to do their homework first. They won’t rush into anything like they did with Kei Igawa again. Otani is clearly the best Japan has to offer for a few years. Others like Fujinami and Norimoto are intriguing, though they face obstacles coming over (hard cap for Fujinami, contract extension for Norimoto).

Yamada could end up being a very big deal next offseason, assuming the Swallows agree to post him for MLB teams, which is far from a given. Middle infielders in their mid-20s with power and speed are always in demand. Even with Didi Gregorius and Starlin Castro up the middle, plus a ton of shortstop prospects in the system, the Yankees may get involved should Yamada be posted. Third base is a question long-term and Yamada could help solve that (Yamada at second, Castro to third?).