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Shohei Otani case reminds us about Masahiro Tanaka coming out

The Nippon Ham Fighters' Shohei Ohtani, pitching on

The Nippon Ham Fighters' Shohei Ohtani, pitching on Oct. 16, 2016, has generated some interest in Major League circles, including the Yankees. Credit: Kyodo

With Shohei Otani expected to be made available to MLB teams this offseason, a move reaffirmed by reports out of Japan this past week, it’s worth revisiting what happened last time a Nippon Professional Baseball star of his caliber was preparing to play in the United States.

That was Masahiro Tanaka, in 2013, and his desire to leave the Nippon Ham Fighters before the nine years required for Japanese free agency coincided with MLB’s renewed efforts to change the posting system.

While both leagues must sign off on any modifications, MLB’s emphasis in recent years — not surprisingly — has been to lower a team’s cost to acquire players already under contract to Japanese clubs. So in November 2013, with Tanaka waiting for a resolution, the owners convened at a conference room in Orlando to ratify a proposal that established a $20-million “release fee” to replace the previously unlimited blind bidding process for the posting system.

That led to the usual squabbling between big- and small- market franchises, the latter always at risk for being priced out of such stars. But the real losers were the NPB teams who, with little leverage, would receive even less compensation for allowing their best players to leave for the States.

Under the old system, the Rangers paid $51.7 million to the Fighters in 2011 merely for the rights to negotiate the eventual six-year, $60-million contract with Yu Darvish. Two years later, with the revised posting program in place, the Yankees ponied up only $20 million to negotiate with Tanaka, who was signed to a seven-year, $155-million contract.

Otani, however, looks to be a win-win situation for MLB teams on both ends, thanks to the collective-bargaining agreement hammered out last winter. Because Otani is only 23 and subject to the new international rules for players under 25, his signing can’t exceed whatever a team has in its international signing pool, which is capped at $10 million for the year.

For that reason, the prevailing thought is that MLB will be satisfied to leave the current posting system in place for Otani’s negotiations and push to modify it afterward. With the money saved on Otani by the new CBA rules, the $20-million payout to the Fighters is more palatable, and not just for the big-market clubs.

Where it goes after Otani is anyone’s guess. Shoichi Oikawa, the owner of the Yomiuri Giants — essentially the NPB’s Yankees — told the Japanese media this past week that one proposal would pay the posting team 15 percent of the guaranteed value of the player’s contract, with a $20-million ceiling on deals more than $100 million. That figures to be a further reduction in money coming back to the NPB clubs, and all of the 12 teams must agree to any changes.

The NPB’s biggest-market teams, such as the Tokyo-based Giants, would prefer to have no posting system and keep the top stars home. They don’t need the money, and why allow their most popular players to head overseas, to the detriment of themselves and the league?

Imagine if the situation were reversed and Aaron Judge chose to leave for the NPB in two years. Or Kris Bryant. Or Carlos Correa.

For those thinking of Hideki Matsui — considered the country’s national treasure — he was never posted by Yomiuri. Matsui left the Giants as a free agent, at age 29, to sign with the Yankees.

So why would the Fighters choose to post someone like Otani, a pitching and hitting phenom with rock-star magnetism in Japan? Often, that has to do with a handshake-type agreement between player and team, an acknowledgment that, at a certain time, he will be allowed to pursue his MLB dream in the States. Reportedly, it was the only way Otani would commit to being drafted by the Fighters in the first place — rather than jump directly to the States out of high school — as well as Nippon Ham granting his wish to be a two-way player.

Otani, who has been tight-lipped with the media about his plans, is believed to want to continue his two-way career in the majors, and that could be a key part to the recruiting process. Because of ankle and hamstring injuries, Otani has been limited to mostly hitting this season, and in 53 games, he has batted .341 with seven home runs and a .973 OPS. On the pitching side, he’s made only three starts, with a 6.97 ERA and 10 strikeouts in 10 1⁄3 innings.

Still, that hasn’t stopped more than a dozen MLB teams from intensely scouting Otani this season, and Yankees general manager Brian Cashman made a personal appearance last month at the Sapporo Dome — the Fighters’ home field — to see Otani return to the mound on Aug. 31.

For an elite-level pitcher with a 100-mph fastball, the increased threat of injury seems too big a gamble to use Otani as a regular hitter in the American League. But when asked about his two-way ability last week, Yankees manager Joe Girardi gave an interesting response about the potential edge he could provide roster-wise.

“I think it’s possible,” Girardi said. “I think you’d be concerned a little bit the day before his start, but it does create a unique situation where if he’s able to DH, it kind of opens up another spot on your roster. So to me, times you needed to go to a six-man rotation, it becomes a lot easier with that spot open and there’s some different things that you could do.”

Judging from those comments, the Otani scenario sounds like something Girardi already has discussed internally to some degree. And by bringing up the six-man rotation, a strategy that would help Japanese pitchers — including Tanaka — who are used to the more extended rest, Otani appears even more valuable to a Yankees team looking for ways to protect their starters in the future.

Commissioner Rob Manfred clearly had no desire to wade into the Apple watch swamp created by the sign-stealing accusations that the Yankees and Red Sox launched at each other last week.

First off, Manfred was none too pleased that a detailed account of the Red Sox’s use of an Apple watch to help steal signs appeared in The New York Times on the very day he was scheduled to be at Fenway Park on unrelated business.

He then had to deal with Boston’s counter-allegations that the Yankees used a YES camera to swipe their signs, which Joe Girardi vehemently denied on the record.

Some would argue that all this Yankees-Red Sox espionage was good for baseball, heating up the ancient rivalry in September. But not in the middle of the playoff hunt and the feel-good drama of the Indians’ 22-game winning streak (which ended Friday night).

So Manfred put the whole thing to rest, for now, with Friday’s emailed statement that said the Red Sox were fined for their Applegate mischief and the Yankees — though cleared of any YES-related crimes — were fined for misuse of a dugout phone in a previous season, apparently from evidence uncovered in this investigation.

We didn’t anticipate any punishment more severe than the undisclosed fines, both of which are going to hurricane relief in Florida. But Manfred put every team on notice by saying he will inflict harsher penalties, including the potential loss of draft picks, for any club caught in the future.

That won’t stop teams from trying to steal each other’s signs. After all, it’s not illegal — as long as electronic devices aren’t used — and the practice is as old as the game itself.

The most interesting part of Manfred’s manifesto, however, was about who knew what and when for the Red Sox. He absolved the club’s top executives, but there was no mention of manager John Farrell being free of blame.

“The violation in question occurred without the knowledge of ownership or front office personnel,” Manfred said. “Second, when the Red Sox learned of the Yankees’ complaint, they immediately halted the conduct in question and then cooperated completely in my investigation. I have received absolute assurances from the Red Sox that there will be no future violations of this type. Third, our investigation revealed that clubs have employed various strategies to decode signs that do not violate our rules. The Red Sox’ strategy violated our rules because of the use of an electronic device.”

As for not going any further than the fines, Manfred added that the lack of precedent in this area prevented him from taking more severe action.


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