Late Tuesday, Major League Baseball and Nippon Professional Baseball came to an agreement on a new posting system, according to reports by the New York Post, Yahoo Sports, and others. That agreement will allow Japanese star Shohei Ohtani to sign with any of the 30 MLB teams and will consequently set off an unprecedented recruiting frenzy for what many describe as an unprecedented talent.
Ohtani, 23, is known for his prolific power and prolific fastball, which has hit 102 mph. He tantalizes dreamers with the promise of a legitimate two-way player not seen since Babe Ruth and entices professional evaluators with the potential for a front-line starter who can chip in offensively now and then, too. Any team could use a player like that, including the Nationals. Will they pursue him?
The short answer is sure. Who wouldn’t? One of Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo’s most-used phrases is “due diligence,” which usually refers to showing an interest in a free agent or making calls on potential trades. You call. You ask. You see what it would take. The Nationals will do their due diligence on Ohtani, whatever they determine that is.
But logistically, they simply cannot mount the kind of pursuit that other teams can. Under the reported terms of that posting agreement, whichever team signs Ohtani must pay his Japanese team, the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters, $20 million. For the Nationals, conservative and slow-moving in their spending all around, that fee sounds prohibitively high.
Even if it weren’t, the Nationals are crippled by their recent international spending. The Nationals blew by their 2016 international bonus pool when they spent nearly $5 million on more than a dozen players in a year they were allotted just $2.35 million — a signing class those within the organization think could yield one or two bona fide major leaguers, though they are still teenagers and therefore years away.
But in keeping with the penalties outlined in the old collective bargaining agreement — penalties that carry over into this year’s July 2 period — the league penalized the Nationals by limiting them to a maximum of $300,000 on any one bonus over the next two seasons. As a result, they can only offer Ohtani $300,000 as a signing bonus. The Rangers and Yankees, not under penalty and with the two biggest international pools available, can commit around $3.5 million.
Still, had Ohtani waited two years until he was 25, he would not have been subject to signing bonus limits that govern the way teams acquire younger international talent. If money were the only concern, he would have waited two seasons, at which time he could have earned tens of millions more. The former Nippon Baseball MVP is reportedly more interested in the chance to compete in the world’s most talent-rich league, and to do so both as a pitcher and hitter.
In that realm, like the financial one, the Nationals can offer Ohtani far less than other teams. Their starting lineup is all but set. Their rotation, while in need of help, is not desperate for a front-line starter around which they would be willing to reconfigure their schedule so that Ohtani — used to pitching once a week — could transition comfortably. American League teams can offer the designated hitter and wouldn’t need Ohtani to play the field as he did as an outfielder for the Fighters.
Besides, the Nationals do not have a history of chasing Asian-born players under Rizzo’s watch. Much like their reticence to spend on Cuban players, who command huge deals before proving anything in MLB, the Nationals have been cautious in their approach to Asian talent, largely because of the belief that comparable, more proven talent is available in other marketplaces — for more manageable prices.
In other words, Ohtani seems unlikely to find his way to Washington. But he is not the only remarkable talent available on the international market.
Tuesday, MLB announced the results of its investigation into the Atlanta Braves’ international dealings. Among the punishments levied on the Nationals’ division rivals was the release of a dozen international prospects the Braves signed during the last three international signing periods. One of them, Venezuelan Kevin Maitan, is a highly touted 17-year-old shortstop the Braves originally signed for $4.2 million. Maitan was ranked 72nd on Baseball America’s midseason top 100 but has received less-positive reviews as a professional than he did during his much-discussed amateur days.
According to reports from the Athletic, the New York Post and others, the released Braves prospects will be subject to the same bonus pool rules as any other — though teams can use either their remaining money from their 2017-18 July 2 funds, or from next season’s (but not a combination of both). The Nationals’ penalties for overspending in 2016 extend to next season, meaning the most they can offer any of the Braves prospects is $300,000. Other teams will likely be willing and able to offer Maitan, and others, more.