ORLANDO, Fla. — Right guy, right time.
In the past, when MLB teams imported starting pitchers from Japan, the expectation was the player was coming here and had to conform to fit the American style of play — notably adapt from starting once a week and perhaps 25 times in a regular season to being a 30-plus start pitcher.
The expectation among many club officials is that this model will be upended for Shohei Otani because he has all the leverage in what will be one of the most unique negotiations ever. But also because MLB clubs are rethinking how they allocate starts to best maximize rest, recovery and performance anyway.
“If you are signing Otani you are going to a six-man rotation,” said the GM of one interested team. “You are adapting to him and what he needs to be successful.”
For Otani to be allowed to come to MLB, the Players Association still is going to have to give its approval to grandfather in the now-expired posting system, whereby the righty’s Japanese team, the Nippon-Ham Fighters, would receive a $20 million posting fee from whichever team ultimately signs Otani. It is expected that some agreement will be reached and Otani will ultimately come this offseason.
However, under the rules of the collective bargaining agreement — because the 23-year-old is under 25 — he is subject to the international spending caps, which means Otani can just receive between $300,000 and $3.5 million as a bonus. Thus, without mega-dollars available, this becomes more about teams recruiting Otani with other items, notably what would make him most comfortable. And Otani already has indicated he would like to continue doing what he did in Japan, where he both hit and pitched.
That would be easier if he followed his familiar pattern of starting roughly once a week and being in a lineup say two or three times between starts. As opposed to, say, Masahiro Tanaka, who started as many 28 games in Japan and twice exceeded 200 innings, Otani has never made more than 24 starts or pitched more than 160 ²/₃ innings.
“The surplus value of this player is so great because he is going to be paid such a fraction of what he is actually worth that essentially he can do whatever he wants and it would still be a huge benefit [for an MLB] team,” said another executive from an interested club.
And yet another executive from an interested team — and, really, all 30 teams are interested and probably half are going to try their hardest to have an audience with Otani — said: “The idea is get the best out of all your players. Why wouldn’t you do what you have to do to get the best out of [Otani], especially considering the reward of his talent if you do?”
In the past, to make Otani comfortable would have meant to disrupt familiar patterns to acclimate him. But there are trends to suggest this will be more of a continuation of where the game is going.
For one, teams more than ever are looking to make the most out of all 25 roster spots and, thus, versatility is king — just check out all the maneuverability the World Series participants Astros and Dodgers had. So if Otani could replicate his dynamic 2016 in which he was the best hitter and pitcher in Japan via 20 starts and 382 plate appearances, teams would hardly see that as a problem to accommodate.
A second item is how much teams are fixating on what is needed to create peak individual performance. In no area is that being investigated more than with how to best deploy pitchers.
The consensus seems to be that if you have a Max Scherzer or Justin Verlander — aces who have consistently provided 30 starts and 200 innings at a high level — then let the marathoners run marathons. But the idea of force-feeding every starter into that mold because “that is how it is done” is dying.
The modern front office sees approximately 1,450 innings that need to be covered in a season and if someone offers 115 of those innings in, say, 20 starts, but would be worse if pushed to more, then so be it. The new CBA provides four extra off-days beginning in 2018 to create more rest time and more teams are open to having a sixth starter or multiple stretched-out relievers on staff for when the need arises.
“It is not like this is just about Otani,” another executive said. “We do not train our starters to make 30 starts here in the minors, but then we bring them to the majors and expect them to do that — and then perhaps make a bunch more starts if you are lucky enough to get to the postseason. We are thinking more than ever about what each pitcher needs in rest, recovery, sleep, diet and individual workout plans to optimize performance. Included in that is exactly what kind of workload can each guy handle. If you can handle 30 starts, great. But if, say, Otani can give you a great 25, why would you say no to that?”