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'Japan's Babe Ruth' Shohei Otani ready to test two-way talent on MLB stage

Nippon Ham Fighters' star pitcher and designated hitter Shohei Otani speaks to reporters during a Nov. 11 news conference in Tokyo. Otani announced that he will seek a spot on a major league team for the 2018 season and beyond via the posing system. (Mainichi)

Japanese baseball star Shohei Otani is looking forward to testing his two-way talent in the major leagues next year, he told reporters in Tokyo on Nov. 11.

The 23-year-old Otani -- who has thrilled Japanese fans with his prodigious production at the plate and ace stuff as a starting pitcher for the Nippon Ham Fighters -- informed the Sapporo-based team on Nov. 10 that he wished to play in Major League Baseball (MLB) in 2018 via the posting system, and the team agreed.

Otani shot to superstardom in 2016, when he led the Fighters to the Japan Series title, wowing fans with his batting heroics and dazzling pitching performances. However, he told the Nov. 11 news conference that he often asked himself "if that is really a plus for my team or the Japanese baseball world." Nevertheless, Otani said he "definitely" wants to continue both hitting and pitching if and when he lands on the other side of the Pacific after going through the posting system this offseason.

Under the player posting agreement between Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) and MLB, a Japanese team may set a fee of up to $20 million for the right to negotiate a major league deal with one of their players. Any big league team can post the fee, but only the one that actually signs the player has to pay up.

The talks between the player and the major league team are essentially the same as a free agent negotiation, with the player able to make contract demands and choose his preferred suitor, though there is a 30-day deadline to make a deal from the day after the posting is officially announced by the MLB commissioner. If no deal is reached, then the player stays with his Japanese team.

Interest in Otani is undoubtedly high -- and for good reason. In an injury-shortened 2017 campaign, he posted a .332 batting average and a .942 OPS in 202 at-bats as a hitter, as well as a 3.20 ERA in five starts as a pitcher. In his championship 2016 season, the phenom hit at a .322 clip, launching 22 home runs and posting an eye-popping 1.004 OPS in 323 at-bats. He was arguably even more impressive on the mound, pitching to a 1.86 ERA and striking out 11.2 batters per nine innings over 21 games, 20 of them starts. For his five-year pro career, Otani has an ERA of 2.52 and a WHIP of just 1.076.

When Otani debuted with the Fighters in 2013, only himself, his manager Hideki Kuriyama, the man who scouted him and perhaps a few others believed he could excel in both roles. Some people in the sport criticized him for even trying, with a few saying bluntly, "Pitching or hitting; you should just choose one."

Nevertheless, though he has kept questioning himself about trying to stick as both pitcher and hitter, he built ample confidence as he continued to practice. All his effort paid off in 2016, when he not only played for a Japan Series-winning team, but became the first player ever to win NPB's Best Nine Award -- given to the best player at each position in each of the Central and Pacific leagues -- as both pitcher and designated hitter.

"There are many different senses of value, so I'll never regret (sticking with both pitching and hitting)," Otani said of the doubts he has faced. However, there seems to be little doubt about his abilities in major league circles, while multiple U.S. and Canadian news outlets have dubbed Otani "Japan's Babe Ruth" for his two-way skillset.

Otani began pondering a move to the majors because, even with all his success in NPB, he felt he still had room to grow, and thought he could accomplish that on the big league stage. That's why, when it comes to choosing an MLB suitor, Otani said he wants to "go to a team that's good for improving myself."

With professional growth Otani's main goal, he said he hasn't been very concerned about how much he'll sign for. Which is a good thing, as the collective bargaining agreement between MLB and the major league players' association states that foreign players under 25 and ineligible for the MLB draft cannot sign a major league free agent contract. Rather, they are categorized as "amateur international free agents" and must sign minor league deals subject to the international bonus pool system, which sets a maximum possible signing bonus of just over $10 million.

So the 23-year-old Otani will have to sign onto a minor league pact with a severely capped bonus. Nevertheless, he felt the timing was right to head to the majors.

One major league scout told the Mainichi Shimbun that 27 of MLB's 30 teams are interested in acquiring Otani, with only the Mets, Astros and Marlins standing on the sidelines. It looks to be a suspenseful offseason, as observers wait to find out which of those 27 rosters will feature Otani's two-way threat.

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