The Braves and Shohei Ohtani

The Braves and Shohei Ohtani

If you haven’t been paying attention, there’s a rather large
story brewing on the international prospect scene. His name is Shohei
Ohtani and he’s the best prospect to come out of Japan in years, arguably being a
once-in-a-generation prospect.

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If you’re unfamiliar, Ohtani is a 23-year-old, two-way player who regularly hits 101 mph as a starter and regularly destroys
baseballs as a hitter. In the states, if this guy was on the free market, free
to sign wherever and for however much he wanted, numbers like $300 million would
be in play. He’s that special of a player.
But that’s where it gets complicated for everyone. Ohtani
isn’t in the states, and he isn’t a free agent and now he’s tied to a system that
was never designed to handle a player of his caliber. Because Ohtani is under
25, he’s subject to MLB international signing restrictions, which are
complicated in themselves, but basically is going to restrict Ohtani from
signing for anything more than $10 million. We can discuss the right and wrong
of forcing a player to accept a contract 1/30th the value of what he’s
actually worth another time but the bottom line is this, if he comes over this offseason,
as reported, he’s leaving hundreds of millions on the table.
And this is big news for the Braves. If I’m honest, I haven’t
really been following the Ohtani sweepstakes that closely simply because I really
didn’t think Atlanta had a chance. If he waited until after he was 25, then it’s
an open market and Atlanta would simply get outbid. If he came
before 25, Atlanta would still be in the penalty box from their 2016 class,
which included Kevin Maitan, and would only be allowed to offer 300K to any
player. These two realties convinced me Ohtani certainly wouldn’t be wearing a
Braves uniform.

But the thing is, it isn’t certain. Jeff Passan of Yahoo sports put it best in a recent series of
tweets on the subject:

“Free agency where money almost literally isn’t a factor.” This is
Atlanta’s type of free agency. In a world where money isn’t king, Atlanta has as
good a shot as any. By coming over now, Ohtani is telling the world this decision
won’t be based on the biggest number he sees on a check. 
There’s another factor too. Like I mentioned above, Ohtani
is a two-way player. He loves to hit. But it’s very unlikely any MLB team is
going to let such a special arm play in the field the 4 days a week he isn’t starting,
especially when the financial commitment increases. This has led many to
believe Ohtani will choose a National League team. A scenario where he gets to
hit 3 or 4 times every 5th day as well as being a legitimate pinch
hit option seems like it would appeal to Ohtani much more than going to
American League and basically being told his hitting days are over. If this is
the case then Atlanta just increased their odds from 1 in 30 to 1 in 15.
There are other ways to increase their odds as well. One
interesting idea that some have suggested is a team should agree to non-tender him
after two or three years. Under the rules of baseball, after Ohtani signs he will be
subject to the same 6 years of team control before free agency as all other
players. By agreeing to non-tender after certain amount of time, he gets to free agency quicker and you get two or three of having him vs some other team. Atlanta could certainly get creative like this.
And even if you only had him for 2 or 3 years, the benefits are insane. Even if
you’re not ready to compete in that time frame he becomes a first-rate trade
piece. It’s an interesting idea but just like everything else in this case, it’s more complicated
MLB has set up these international spending rules, in part
to save owners a lot of money, but also to maintain competitive balance. Put a
cap on it and it doesn’t matter if you’re the Yankees or the A’s, you’re
operating on the same financial playing field. And MLB is serious about this.
They’ve sent out multiple league wide memos reminding teams that any contract
for Ohtani, just like all other contracts, must be approved by the commissioner’s
office and any attempt to circumvent the rules will result in not only a voided
contract, but harsh penalties. This is a measure intended to prevent teams from
orchestrating an under-the-table agreement with Ohtani, like the one mentioned above, or any kind of pre-arranged extension.
But it’s important to remember that the commissioner’s
office doesn’t wield power unilaterally over baseball. The sport is governed by
a collective bargaining agreement and any and all clauses and penalties regarding
contracts must be laid out in the CBA. Now I’ve heard this new CBA will have
such language in it but it’s obviously very difficult to include every
possibility. Teams have people on their payroll whose entire job it is to find
legal ways around the CBA. Such is the reality in an ultra-competitive world. If
a team comes up with a creative way to get Ohtani paid quicker while still
staying within the parameters of the CBA, MLB is going to have a mess on their
hands. Again, this system was never designed for a guy this valuable.
This will all be fascinating. To be clear, the Braves certainly aren’t the favorites. That distinction probably belongs to the Dodgers, the Cubs, or the team that signs Yu Darvish. But Atlanta is certainly in a better position than they were before and the idea that money will play such a small role basically makes this a wide-open race. The Atlanta Braves could get Shohei Ohtani. And that’s kind of cool.

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