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Shohei Ohtani: Who he is and why the Rockies should break the bank to get him

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Imagine an MVP hitter and Cy Young pitcher playing half his games in Coors Field.

Japan v Netherlands - International Friendly Photo by Masterpress/Getty Images

The Rockies are in the midst of their busiest offseason in over a decade. They set team records for largest free agent contracts given to a position player and to a relief pitcher already, and there are rumors that they still might trade an outfielder and try to acquire another slugger. But what the Rockies should really do is set their eyes on setting another team record next offseason by signing likely international free agent Shohei Ohtani.

If you don’t follow Nippon Professional Baseball, watch the World Baseball Classic qualifiers, listen to the Effectively Wild podcast, or keep up with Cut4, you might not have heard of Shohei Ohtani. Perhaps the best way to introduce him is through a screenshot of his page at Baseball-Reference:

Ohtani just completed his third full season in Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball league. In 21 starts for the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters, he struck out 174 batters over 140 innings with a 1.86 ERA, a 0.96 WHIP, and a 2.9 BB/9. That’s 2016 Clayton Kershaw. For his efforts he was named the Pacific League’s best pitcher, nearly doubling the number of votes as second place. He also managed to put up a .322/.416/.588 batting line in 104 games, with 22 home runs, 67 RBI, seven stolen bases, and 54 walks (which is nine more than he gave up on the mound). That’s 2015 Paul Goldschmidt and it was enough for him to be named the Pacific League’s best designated hitter, tripling number of votes second place received. And, yes, he was the first player in NPB history to do both.

But the numbers don’t even tell half the story of Ohtani’s excellence. You see, Shohei Ohtani is no mere mortal. He hits balls through the roof at the Tokyo Dome:

His fastball sits between 98 and 101 mph:

Oh, and he’s 22 years old, and he could be coming stateside as early as next year.

If you are skeptical of super talents coming over from NPB to MLB, you’re not alone. For every Ichiro Suzuki there is a Kaz Matsui. For every Yu Darvish there is a Daisuke Matsuzaka. How can we be sure Ohtani will be more the former than the latter? With all due respect to previous talents that have made their way across the Pacific, we’ve never seen this combination of youth and talent in Japan, and we’ve never seen this combination of pitcher and hitter in modern baseball. At this point, it seems that the odds of Ohtani becoming a megastar are much greater than of him becoming a bust.

“Hooray! Perhaps my favorite Major League Baseball team will sign him to a contract,” you think to yourself. Then you remember the contracts given to recent NPB mega stars Darvish (six years, $60 million) and Masahiro Tanaka (seven years, $155 million), and they were both over the age of 25 at the time. There’s also the matter of the NPB posting fee, which has been capped at $20 million since 2014. This seems to eliminate any chance of anyone but the highest bidders being able to procure Ohtani’s services.

But that was before the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, which complicated the process of signing International Free Agents (to say the least). In a recent discussion among writers, Matthew Gross (more commonly known as RhodeIslandRoxFan) pointed out how the new system might work exactly in the Rockies’ favor.

One of the major sticking points of the latest CBA negotiations was revamping the international signing system. While the owners did not get their wish for an International Draft, they did find a way to curtail international spending by creating an international signing salary cap. Teams considered at a “competitive disadvantage” receive a higher cap for their international signings. This is tied to the Competitive Balance Round draft picks. Each December, the 14 teams that fall into the bottom ten in terms of revenue or market size are drawn into either Competitive Balance Round A (after the first round) or Competitive Balance Round B (after the second round). The six teams drawn into Round A receive a $5.25 million pool for their international signings, while the eight teams drawn into Round B receive a $5.75 million pool. The teams not in the Competitive Balance lottery receive a $4.75 million international signing pool. This year, the Rockies were drawn into Round B.

While teams cannot trade draft picks, they can trade International Signing Pool money, but no team can acquire more than an additional 75 percent of which they started. This means the Rockies can potentially bump their total up to $10.06 million, and only seven other teams (the Padres, Diamondbacks, Indians, Royals, Pirates, Cardinals, and Orioles) can match that.

If Shohei Ohtani is posted at the end of 2017, teams will have to pay the max $20 million posting fee to Hokkaido in order to negotiate terms of a contract with him. From there, no team can offer a contract that would exceed their international signing pool. This means that the Rockies (plus the seven teams listed above) are in the best position to try to sign this once in a lifetime talent. It would take employing a very specific strategy, one that not every team that can will be willing to employ.

There are those who believe that, because of the way this system is set up, Ohtani will not be posted next season. This means that he would have to wait another three seasons to play in the majors. Of course, there is a chance that NPB and MLB will work out some sort of alternative system specifically for Ohtani (it wouldn’t be the first time rules were changed for him).

But assuming the system stays the way it is and Shohei Ohtani chooses to request posting next offseason, the Rockies should start positioning themselves now to be the team that gets to sign him. If they start making trades for pool money, it might be to make a run at the most exciting player in baseball. And you’d be forgiven for trying to imagine how far this ball would go in Coors Field.

A very special thank you to Matthew Gross who so eloquently broke down the new International Signing Pool system for this article.