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Would the Twins be a realistic landing spot for Japanese phenom Shohei Otani?

One of the biggest stories of this winter in Major League Baseball will be whether Japanese phenom Shoehi Otani decides the time is right to make the jump to the United States – and where he’ll land if that happens.

Some experts are projecting that if he were a pure free agent, the 23-year-old pitcher who tops 100 mph with his fastball – and can also swing a powerful bat – would fetch a contract worth more than $200 million. Maybe even $300 million. Some Twins fans, conditioned to think that Josh Willingham’s $21 million contract from a few years back constituted big money, would immediately write off the mid-market Twins as a possible landing spot for Otani.

But that’s not a foregone conclusion.

First, a brief primer on why it matters. Otani, 23, reportedly holds the current record for the fastest fastball in Japan, at 101 mph. He’s also said to have a good splitter, plus a slider and curve ball, none of which I can speak to since I haven’t seen him pitch. This year, he’s been beset with injuries to his ankle and his thigh, which has limited his playing time. Last year for the Nippon Ham Fighters, he was 10-4 on the mound with a 1.86 ERA and a very good 174:45 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 140 innings. At the plate, he batted .322/.416/.588 with 22 homers in 382 plate appearances (roughly a 34-homer pace over 600 plate appearances – for a pitcher!).

Because of his two-way prowess, Otani has been dubbed “Japan’s Babe Ruth.” He has reportedly hired an agent in recent days — CAA’s Nez Balelo — in anticipation that he might play in the U.S. as early as next year. At least two different times over the past three days, the Twins have been mentioned as a possible destination. There are two very specific reasons for that, and both are worth exploring deeper for better context.

The first amounts to nothing more than rumor at this point. Buster Olney, in an ESPN column on Otani the Mystery Man, wrote an excerpt that should pique the interest of every Twins fan:

There have been rumors that he would prefer to be part of a rebuilding effort rather than joining an established power, but nobody really knows if that means he’d pick, say, the Twins over the Dodgers.

Olney went on to quote an evaluator who said that the nugget of speculation may be nothing more than hearsay. Take it for what it’s worth.

Still, it’d be interesting if an international star chose to play for the Twins because of the perception that they’re on the upswing with a good young core – and that they’d somehow get bonus points for not being good enough to go to the World Series last year. It’d be interesting, anyway, if he was within their price range.

And that’s where the second factor comes into play. He is in their price range.

The second reason the Twins have been mentioned in Otani stories relates to the old international posting system, which expired at the end of October. The upshot is that the Twins are one of three teams that have more than $3 million left to spend on the international market, according to the Associated Press, behind only the Rangers and Yankees in terms of total remaining bonus pool. All three teams are within about a quarter-million dollars of each other, per the report.

Technically, a new structure would need to be reached for anything to get done on the “posting” front. Under the old system, his NPB team – the Nippon Ham Fighters – could post Otani for up to $20 million, which any MLB team could pay for the right to negotiate with Otani. (That’s the same process the Twins went through with the KBO, when Byung-Ho Park’s team posted him and the Twins “won the bid” by paying his KBO team more than $12 million for the right to exclusively negotiate with the star slugger. Then Minnesota signed a four-year contract with Park, as the only MLB team with the right to do so.)

That old system is gone now. But there’s some speculation among national reports that it could be reinstated for another year, rather than replacing it with a brand new system.

And since Otani is younger than 25, he’d be subject to every team’s international spending limits. The Twins’ $3.245 million, again, trails only the Rangers ($3.535 million) and the Yankees ($3.25 million). So the clubs are comparable, and even the max-value Rangers would be a far cry from the projected $200 million he allegedly could fetch if he were a true “free agent.”

Joel Sherman of the New York Post has a detailed breakdown of the whole financial situation. It’s worth a read if I’ve confused you with my nonsensical rambling.

Essentially, if the Rangers, Yankees or Twins can give Otani a one-year minor league deal worth between $3 million and $4 million, there’s not a huge difference. As a cross-cultural star, he would be in line for a lot of money in endorsements anyway, and some reports have speculated that the money might not be the most important factor for Otani. (If money was the primary motivator, he’d be best served to wait to join Major League Baseball in two years, when he’s 25 and no longer would be restricted to those pesky caps on international bonus pool money.)

Again, that’s a rumor that I don’t know to be true. All I know is that I’ve been fascinated for the past couple of days by the possibility that circumstances might lead to a player like Otani one day pitching for the Twins.

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