Can the Mariners pull off the biggest free-agent signing coup in years?
General manager Jerry Dipoto currently heads a contingent of club officials in Japan for a first-hand look at two-way star Shohei Otani amid increasing reports that Otani is heading next season to the major leagues.
That the Mariners are interested is no surprise.
Otani, 23, is generally viewed as a once-in-a-generation talent and is often referred to as the Japanese Babe Ruth because he combines a 100-mph arm with the ability to hit tape-measure home runs.
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The surprise, if there is one, is Otani truly appears willing to forego tens of millions (maybe hundreds of millions) of dollars by opting to depart Japan before he turns 25.
A clause in the new labor agreement restricts the bidding for all players under 25 to money available under a club’s annual international bonus pool allotment, which ranges from $4.75 million to $5.75 million per club.
The rules do permit clubs to make trades to acquire bonus money from other clubs but only up to an additional 75 percent of their base bonus. That boosts the top bid to a range roughly between $8.31 million to $10.1 million.
The Mariners would be capped at the lower figure.
There’s a wrinkle, though. There are 12 clubs limited to offering a bonus of no more than $300,000 because of previous international spending excesses.
That restricted group includes several West Coast clubs who would otherwise loom as attractive suitors such as the Los Angeles Dodgers, San Francisco and San Diego. Other restricted clubs include the Chicago Cubs, Houston and Washington.
The new limits were put in place to curb the runaway spending on Cuban free agents. Without such limits, industry estimates suggest Otani could command a package totaling $200 million or more.
Despite those restrictions, Otani has consistently maintained he is likely to request the Nippon Ham Fighters post him for bidding after this season. Similarly, the Fighters say they will honor that request.
Otani missed much of this season because of ankle and thigh injuries but compiled a 1.86 ERA last season while striking out 176 in 140 innings. He also hit 27 home runs in 104 games while batting .322 with a .416 on-base percentage.
There is a posting fee that any major-league club must pay Nippon Ham in order to gain the right to negotiate with Otani, a left-handed hitter who throws right-handed.
The current system caps that fee at $20 million. While a revision is currently under negotiation between MLB and the Japan League, it is likely to remain a flat fee. A new deal should be in place by November.
The overall effect is the virtual elimination of a bidding war. Since every MLB club is likely to be interested, Otani simply must choose where he prefers to play.
So why not the Mariners in a city with a proven history of easing the acclimation of Japanese-born players?
Outfielder Ichiro Suzuki became a star in Seattle and is likely headed to the Hall of Fame after arriving in 2001, one year after reliever Kazuhiro Sasaki won the Rookie of the Year award. Sasaki was a two-time All-Star.
Iwakuma spent the last seven years with the Mariners. While he missed most of this season because of a shoulder injury, he led the club last year with 16 victories and was an All-Star in 2013.
Other notable Japanese-born players to play for the Mariners include catcher Kenji Johjima, outfielder Nori Aoki, infielder Muni Kawasaki and pitcher Mac Suzuki.
Dipoto watched Otani pitch 5 2/3 scoreless innings Tuesday against Rakuten in Sapporo. Other club officials on trip include vice president of scouting Tom Allison, Japan-based scout Manny Noto and translator Antony Suzuki.
The rules require that Otani be signed initially to a minor-league deal, although he would presumably make a big-league roster next spring and be paid the major-league minimum of $545,000 (in addition to his signing bonus).
MLB officials have made it clear that any attempt to subvert the rules by, say, significantly hiking Otani’s salary once he makes the big-league roster will be viewed as a rules violation and dealt with accordingly (i.e., harshly).
Further, any action that sets a precedent is likely to be viewed as a violation. For example: It is rare for a player to make $1 million if he lacks the necessary big-league service time to qualify for arbitration.
That means Otani should make less than $2.5 million over his first three seasons. Once players qualify for arbitration, they are generally paid in accordance to their accomplishments when measured against their peers.
Otani’s contract, if he plays to expectations, should zoom upward at that point.
The challenge for Mariners (and every other club) at this point is simply to convince Otani that they represent his best opportunity.
The Mariners should have no financial problem in signing Otani.
They can roughly offset the cost of his signing bonus and posting fee by choosing, as expected, not to exercise club options this winter on two pitchers; Iwakuma and Yovani Gallardo.
Longer term, Felix Hernandez’s contract runs through 2019, which means it will be off the books by the time Otani is positioned for a major salary hike through arbitration.
Bob Dutton: @TNT_Mariners