The young Otani will not lack for suitors
On October 25, Japanese pitching phenom Shohei Otani announced his intention to jump directly from high school to American baseball. Unlike Masanori Murakami, Hideo Nomo and Hideki Irabu before him, Otani's arrival would be different in that he would eschew the Nippon Professional Baseball league entirely before signing with a Major League ball club. In other words, Otani will become the first Japanese player ever to sign directly with an MLB club out of high school if he does so come April (when eligible).
Almost on cue, some of the usual suspects cropped up as possible landing spots: The Boston Red Sox, Texas Rangers and Los Angeles Dodgers have been labeled as the biggest suitors. They're all big-market teams that operate in the top six in Major League Baseball in terms of team salary.
But there is a team lurking that has already shown a propensity to shock the league with its signing of international talent. Yes, that team is the Oakland A's, who in addition to snagging phenom Yoenis Cespedes, took a chance on young pitcher Michael Ynoa in 2008. While it is improbable Oakland could land the lanky Japanese pitcher, there are reasons why it would make sense. Here are my top 10.
Cespedes is proof that you can hit it big with international free agents
Most people assume that smaller market teams can't/don't/won't sign unproven baseball players because of the risk of these players either not living up to their contracts or worse, not being everything they are made out to be. That can include false ages, etc.
But with the A's, success is recent. Yoenis Cespedes' $36 million deal may prove to be an absolute bargain by the end of the deal. In most years, Cespedes would have been the clear American League Rookie of the Year. But Mike Trout did not have a typical rookie year.
So in the case of Otani, making a play for him certainly can't be any worse than say, $10 million for Ben Sheets.
Matsui's arrival brought plenty of Japanese media coverage
Coming off an amazing season, the A's will be hard pressed to duplicate the kind of attention they received down the home stretch of the 2012 season. The performance side of sports dictates that winning trumps everything an organization could do.
But we know that's just not true. If it was about winning, you'd only see the New England Patriots, Los Angeles Lakers and New York Yankees on shows like this. They aren't because marketing and media exposure do matter.
A player of Otani's potential and intrigue likely will bring a throng of initial buzz, much like Yu Darvish did with the Texas Rangers. For a team like the A's, any positive attention can do nothing but good for them.
Otani's youth gives whoever signs him time to let him fully develop
The reason this one isn't higher on the list is the same reason it's on the list in the first place: Shohei Otani is only 18 years old. No matter where he goes, I can't find a scenario where he makes like Joe Nuxhall and pitches in his teens. There will be a long-range view with his arm and his development.
That means you're getting someone that is not pressured to be a Dwight Gooden circa 1985. Otani will have the latitude to grow, which leads to my next point.
Otani's stuff is meaner than this expression
Yes, the reality is this young man can throw a baseball. Not many 18-year-olds throw 99 miles per hour. The bottom line is that whoever makes a deal to acquire Otani gets a 6'4" flamethrower who possesses a plus fastball, a plus curve and would likely be a very high pick in the MLB Draft if he was American.
Because of that, there is the chance for a team that does not typically get to chase high-end free agents (i.e. Cincinnati Reds with Aroldis Chapman) stateside who could make a play for Otani. That is precisely the type of move Billy Beane has shown he is willing to make.
An Otani signing could absolutely stack the A's rotation in two to three years
Just picture this if you're an A's fan: It's the 2015 World Series and the A's are in their first Fall Classic since 1990. They have a starting rotation of Jarrod Parker, Brett Anderson, Sonny Gray and Shohei Otani. If you know about the abilities of that quartet, it doesn't seem so far-fetched, does it?
The truth is, Oakland's pitching has always been strong, but there hasn't been a playoff anchor on the staff since Dave Stewart. That's no disrespect to the Big Three of Tim Hudson, Barry Zito and Mark Mulder, but none of them carried the A's out of the first round of the playoffs.
If you sign a player of Otani's talent and he pans out, suddenly the A's project to have one of the best rotations in all of baseball, hands down.
The deal for Holliday is the type of gamble smaller teams must take
Rare is it that under-the-radar deals swing the balance of a title. Winning a World Series requires a lot of factors, but talent is still the ultimate one. To acquire enough talent to go from a playoff contender to a world champion, teams either have to have the pocketbooks to spend big or have impeccable drafts and bring in the perfect talent to blend with that youth.
The Oakland A's have managed to be a contender more consistently than small-market counterparts like the Royals, Pirates, Marlins and Mariners because they have a formula that mitigates extreme damage for losses of high-profile stars like Jason Giambi, Miguel Tejada, Zito, Hudson, Mulder and recently, Nick Swisher and Dan Haren.
But along with that is a feeling of treading water: The team can be good enough to get to the show, but not quite complete enough to win it all. Doing that requires making moves like the one to acquire Cespedes, who has all the makings of a blue-chip, high-yield investment.
Otani represents a similar gamble. And like Cespedes, there are elements to signing him that you don't get with a typical high-profile free agent...
Otani is no Strasberg, but he won't cost as much either
...the biggest of which might be the leverage that a team has. Follow me here: By signing Prince Fielder and Albert Pujols to their immense contracts, the Detroit Tigers and Los Angeles Angels respectively tied themselves to those players for the next nine and 10 years, respectively.
That is because the costs of their contracts dictate the inability to deal them if their production does not match what they will be paid in future years. Need proof?
With a young, but unproven phenom like Otani, the control a team has is enhanced. If the player holds up his end of the bargain and the team is not good, he becomes a chip that can be dealt for more help. The player can become the centerpiece if you are rebuilding.
What it essentially does is afford smaller teams a chance to land a superstar at a quality player's cost. Because those costs aren't excessive, a club like Oakland can use that player to boost the entire team, if necessary. That, of course, is an ideal scenario, but it is a win/win as such.
The A's will absorb some losses, which makes taking another international chance a possibility
You would think the sky is the limit for a team that just won 94 games and a division title. But the A's still have holes to address and likely will say goodbye to a few key parts from the 2012 AL West winner.
Cynically, one could say that the A's are just too cheap to keep a good thing intact. Considering the, uh, frugality of the ballclub, perhaps that is not an inaccurate assessment, especially with the flexibility the team possesses as a result of such limited costs.
But you could look at it on the optimistic side and say that to keep interest in a surprising, exciting and winning ballclub, only a fool would not give his baseball man the chance to keep a good thing going. I don't want to speak for A's owner Lew Wolff; having spoken to many Oakland A's fans, they do that enough.
I just choose to see this offseason as a real opportunity for the Oakland A's to make a move towards being not just a good story, but a great team. Maybe even a championship team. You do that by taking calculated chances. The winter of 2012 netted the A's a budding superstar outfielder from Cuba. Maybe the winter of 2013 is the year of Otani.
The window is always smaller for teams like the A's
You know when you're a fan of a small-market baseball team? That's when you are keenly aware of words like arbitration, club control, revenue sharing and compensation. I am not one to rail for or against the structure of baseball's economics. No, I simply think more teams should figure out how they can use them to their benefit.
For the Oakland A's, there is no better word than control. More specifically, club control, or in layman's terms, a team having domain over a player. Six years is what you have maximum initially, so it has to count.
In this case, the A's would have the luxury of letting a player like Otani come along and work his way through the minor leagues. Yes, there is an inherent danger in paying for an unknown commodity. But some risks are mitigated and in this case, worth it. Otani is being courted for a reason. He's got the goods and simply needs to be harnessed and molded into a top-flight pitcher.
When you can get a guy that can be a top of your rotation starter at best, you go for him. Because unlike an absolute icon in Japanese baseball...
Otani won't cost as much your typical top 5 MLB Draft pick
...Otani is not going to command eight figures per year. If Yu Darvish, possibly the best pitcher in the history of Japanese baseball, only commanded a $10 million per year deal, it is not unreasonable to think that an 18-year-old high school phenom won't fetch half of that amount.
With the new slotting system for the MLB Draft, the 2012 first overall pick Carlos Correa received a $7.2 million deal with the Houston Astros. Missing on a top pick no longer costs you the arm and leg it once did.
In the case of the Oakland A's, this is an opportunity to make a play for a potential game-changing pitcher without having to be an atrocious ball club. Best of all, you don't expect the costs to be outrageous in the slightest.
Of course, there is going to be competition, which is likely to drive up the overall price. But like Cespedes, this is a play worth making. Because if it hits, you have two top-tier stars on the mound and the field to build around. What the A's have missed is that player that can carry a club in October. I'm not saying Otani might be the player in a few years.
But I'm also not saying he won't be.
Winning takes bold moves. Otani would be another Beane masterstroke
The fact that Otani was drafted by the Nippon Ham Fighters of the N.P.B. is probably of little substance in the big picture. He has made it clear he wants to play in America and in the Major Leagues eventually. So the fact that he can't pitch until March 2013 means little because there was no likely fast track to the big leagues anyway.
Unlike Darvish or Daisuke Matsuzaka or Hideo Nomo, signing Otani won't come with an exorbitant posting fee (Darvish's former club was paid $51.7 million by Texas). That means you get a much more bargain-basement, though obviously less proven, commodity.
Those are the types of players teams like the A's have to be more aggressive about pursuing. Otani's ceiling seems to reach higher than his floor drops. As a result, it is more of a calculated risk than a life-altering gamble. For Billy Beane, that's just par for the course out in Oakland.