Even though they fell short of their 28th World Series title, the New York Yankees still cemented themselves in 2017 as a budding powerhouse that may be only a few pieces away from a potential dynasty.
With the gathering of these missing pieces set to begin in earnest this winter, here's a name for the top of their shopping list: Shohei Otani.
Or, as he's perhaps better known: Japan's Babe Ruth.
That would be hyperbolic if it wasn't so appropriate. Otani, a 23-year-old currently under the employ of the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters, is a right-handed pitcher and left-handed hitter who's found success doing both in Nippon Professional Baseball. He owns a career 2.52 ERA in 543 innings and an .859 OPS in 1,170 plate appearances.
"Best baseball player in the world," a Major League Baseball official declared to B/R's Scott Miller in March.
To be fair, Mike Trout might have something to say about that. But since Otani has a list of functions rivaling that of even R2-D2, he can at least be viewed as the most talented baseball player in the world.
Even after a 2017 season in which hamstring and ankle injuries (he recently had surgery for the latter) limited him to only five starts, he's seen primarily as a pitcher. He has a pitcher's build at about 6'4" and 215 pounds, per NPB.jp, and he has an easy, athletic delivery from which he hurls three outstanding pitches—a fastball that's climbed as high as 102 mph and an electric splitter and slider.
But while Otani wasn't much of an offensive star in his first three seasons with Nippon Ham, he turned into one over the last two seasons. Across 613 plate appearances, he tallied a .981 OPS and 30 homers. He has good speed, and his power is regarded as a legit plus tool.
When imagining Otani as an MLB player, it's perhaps easiest to picture him working as a pitcher or as a hitter but not as both. But just as there's no question about his ability, there's no question about his desire to do both.
"He's telling everyone he wants to hit, too. You'll have to let him or you're not going to get him," one international scouting director told MLB.com's Jonathan Mayo. "A plan will have to be devised to save his arm and use him as both a hitter and a pitcher."
Major league teams that haven't already made such plans had better do so. Because Otani is coming.
Reports from Jim Allen of the Japan Times and other Japanese media outlets in September claimed Otani will be made available this offseason. Later that month, Jon Heyman of FanRag Sports reported Otani was shopping for a stateside agent.
Like Yu Darvish, Masahiro Tanaka and others before him, Otani will come to MLB via the posting system. Barring any changes to the rules, any team willing to pay Nippon Ham the maximum fee of $20 million will be able to negotiate a deal with Otani himself.
Unlike Darvish and Tanaka, however, Otani isn't ticketed for a monstrous major league contract.
MLB's current collective bargaining agreement restricts international players under the age of 25 to the league's bonus pool system. Assuming Otani follows through on his plans to come to MLB this winter, he'll only be in line for a seven-figure bonus to sign a mere minor league contract. He would then be subject to service time rules that would put six cost-controlled years between him and free agency.
This is the baseball equivalent of a Lamborghini being made available to anyone and everyone for a low-low price of $5. For the Yankees, who have "only" $156.3 million projected dollars on their books for 2018, that inconveniently means they can't lure Otani with their checkbook alone.
That shouldn't stop them from pursuing him, however. Nor should it be a deal-breaker for the man himself.
With CC Sabathia heading into free agency and Tanaka potentially headed in the same direction if he uses his contract's opt-out, the Yankees will be in the market for starting pitching this winter. Otani will be the highest-upside pitcher out there, and he would fit the Yankees like a glove.
Among the many secrets to a successful 2017 season that saw the Yankees come within a win of the World Series was a pitching staff that brought the heat. According to FanGraphs, the Yankees staff's 94.5 mph average fastball is the highest ever in records that date to 2002.
Luis Severino and his MLB-best 97.6 mph fastball were a big reason for that. Add Otani and his heat, and the Yankees would have a heck of a high-octane duo. Eventually, hard-throwing prospects such as Chance Adams and Justus Sheffield could join the party and turn New York's staff into the envy of MLB.
On the other side of the ball, the Yankees have an opening at designated hitter. That's a perfect spot to give Otani regular at-bats. To boot, his offensive profile would fit perfectly next to the likes of Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez and Greg Bird.
For one thing, Otani would add even more power to an offense that led MLB with 241 homers in 2017. For another thing, his status as a lefty-hitting slugger makes him a classic match for Yankee Stadium's short right field porch.
Via Baseball Savant, see here how it gifted about as many homers in 2017 as you'd expect:
Otani would fit right in with the Yankees' youth movement, which could all but guarantee him several shots at World Series glory. The Yankees can also offer New York and everything that comes with it, from heightened endorsement opportunities to an appropriately sized stage.
"He likes the spotlight," one scout told George A. King III of the New York Post. "I would say the Yankees have the inside track."
Only Otani knows whether that's actually true. If it isn't, that's one major selling point knocked off the Yankees' list. Since money will be no object in an extremely crowded pursuit for his services, neither the Yankees nor any other pursuer can afford to lose selling points.
Nonetheless, there may not be a better fit than a team which can mix him into stables of power arms and power bats that are already young and strong. And if said fit does come to fruition, 2017 will only be the beginning of a potential new-look Yankees dynasty.
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