Scouts Split On Japan's Shohei Otani, Shintaro Fujinami
When international scouting directors organize coverage both for themselves and their staffs, the Dominican Republic and Venezuela tend to be the priority spots.
In the Pacific Rim, teams spend time scouting high school players in South Korea, Taiwan and Australia. Japan is different. Scouts can't remember a significant Japanese high school player choosing to sign directly with a Major League Baseball team rather than play in Japan's Nippon Professional Baseball.
Shohei Otani may soon change that, and if he skips out on NPB and signs as an international free agent with an MLB club, it will make real waves on both sides of the Pacific. Otani has told NPB teams
not to select him when the league holds its draft on Thursday because he intends to sign with an MLB team.
Otani has gotten the hype, and while he's certainly talented, scouts aren't sold that he's even the best high school prospect in Japan.
The country's top prep prospect for many evaluators is Shintaro Fujinami, a 6-foot-5 righthander who outperformed Otani at the 18U World Championships in South Korea in late August and early September.
Fujinami, 18, made the tournament's all-star team as the best starting pitcher. "Mount Fuji" led the tournament in innings (24 1/3) and strikeouts (26), including 21 swinging strikeouts, finishing with a 1.11 ERA and eight walks.
In Fujinami's first outing at the World Championships, he threw 119 pitches in a complete-game shutout against Taiwan with 13 strikeouts, two hits allowed (one to Red Sox shortstop Tzu-Wei Lin
), one walk and a hit batsman. His fastball touched 97 mph and he flashed an impressive slider in the upper-80s to help him miss bats along with a splitter and a changeup.
Like many Japanese high school stars, Fujinami was worked hard during the tournament. Japan threw Fujinami in four of the team's nine games, including three starts, so his fastball settled down to the low-90s after his first start.
On three days' rest, Fujinami threw 100 pitches over five innings against Colombia, allowing three runs (one earned) with five strikeouts and two walks. He returned the next day to throw 127 pitches in a complete-game victory over Colombia in which he allowed two runs (one earned), four walks and struck out six. He got in another 44 pitches the next day in a relief outing against Team USA in which he got rocked around for five runs (though only one earned) over 1 1/3 innings.
Fujinami is accustomed to the big stage. One week before the World Championships, Fujinami led Osaka Toin High School to a national title by throwing a complete-game shutout with 14 strikeouts in front of a reported 46,000 people in Hanshin Koshien Stadium. He also pitched at the 16U World Championships in Taiwan in 2009 when he was 15, where he tied for fourth in the tournament with 17 strikeouts in 16 2/3 innings. He didn't have as much success in Taiwan as he did in South Korea, though after a dominant first start against Russia (four shutout, one-hit innings with no walks and nine strikeouts), he made three more appearances on either two days' rest or on consecutive days.
Fujinami was, according to multiple scouts, not only the best pitching prospect on Japan's 18U team, but the best pitching prospect at the entire tournament. While the Fujinami-Otani debate has scouts split, it may be several years before any major league team will be able to make a move for Fujinami. For now, Otani is the only one who has publicly declared his intentions to pursue an MLB career. Here is Baseball America's guide to Shohei Otani.
Otani, 18, pitched at this year's 18U World Championships with mixed results. In his first start against Canada, Otani surrendered three runs in 3 1/3 innings with four strikeouts, four walks, a hit batsman and a wild pitch. He was better in his only other start of the tournament against South Korea on seven days' rest, a game in which he struck out 12 and allowed two runs in seven innings with two hits allowed, though he did walk four and hit a pair of batters. Otani finished the tournament with a 4.35 ERA (the highest of the five pitchers who started a game for Japan) in 10 1/3 innings with eight walks, 16 strikeouts, two wild pitches and three hit batters. Otani is athletic and some scouts liked his ability with the bat—he hit .324/.400/.382 in 39 plate appearances as Japan's DH and left fielder—but his future is on the mound.
Otani has told NPB teams not to draft him, though even if a Japanese team does decide to take him, that wouldn't prevent him from signing with an MLB team instead. MLB enacted a registration process for international players
this year where every player eligible to sign on July 2, 2012 had to have registered with MLB by May 1 or else they would have to wait until July 2, 2013 to sign. However, the registration process for this year doesn't affect most players from Asia, since they technically became eligible to sign before July 2, although they typically don't sign until they are 17 or 18 and have graduated high school. So the registration process won't affect Otani.
If Otani decides to sign with a major league team, he would be an international free agent subject to the $2.9 million international bonus pool rules for every team, assuming he signs soon. He could opt to wait until July 2, 2013, when bonus pools will be based on reverse order of 2012 winning percentage, with the No. 1 pool for the Astros expected to be around $4.6 million. However, he's expected to sign soon.
At 6-foot-4, 190 pounds, Otani is a strong, physical pitcher with square shoulders and a durable body. While Yu Darvish
took his strength and conditioning to the next level in recent years, Otani is more physically developed than Darvish was at the same age, particularly the strength in his legs. While Fujinami may be a little taller, Otani's frame is more physically mature.
Otani has great arm speed and arm action with a loose, easy delivery. His fastball sits around 92-96 mph and has touched 98 (he hit 99 according to a video online, though BA could not find a scout who could confirm a reading above 98). Pitching every fifth day, Otani's fastball may sit in the lower end of that range, but his power arm is a major draw for scouts. Some scouts liked the life on Otani's fastball, though others thought it flattened out, which contributed to him getting hit against Canada.
Scouts were mixed on Otani's offspeed pitches. His best secondary offering is his tight slider that he throws around 82-85 mph. He also mixes in a splitter and a big, slow curveball that so many Japanese pitchers seem to throw. The one area where scouts consistently said Otani needs work is on his command, as he's prone to bouts of wildness and isn't as advanced in that area compared to the U.S. high school pitchers who went in the first round in the draft this year. He's not as polished as Darvish or Daisuke Matsuzaka
were at the same age, so Otani is still learning to make the transition from thrower to pitcher.
According to published reports, Otani has met with the Rangers, Dodgers and Red Sox. Financially, the Rangers would appear to be in the driver's seat, since MLB determined that their controversial $4.5 million signing
of Dominican outfielder Jairo Beras won't count against their 2012-13 international bonus pool. The Rangers had a heavy contingent at the World Championships, including senior director of player personnel A.J. Preller, who has prior experience as the team's international scouting director.
The Dodgers also have most of their pool space available. They spent $1.8 million to sign lefthander Julio Urias and a package of other players from Mexico City, but only $450,000 will count against the team's international bonus pool because MLB has said only the amount that goes to the player (typically 25 percent) will count against a team's pool in the case of Mexican League transfers for Mexican-born citizens.
The Rangers and Dodgers have close ties, as both Preller and special assistant Don Welke used to work in Los Angeles. The Dodgers also have strong relationships in Japan and even have a history of signing amateur players from the country. In 2010, the Dodgers signed righthander Kazuya Takano
out of Buntoku High in Kumamotu, Japan for $50,000 the day after he turned 18. That same year, the Dodgers also spent $25,000 on 21-year-old lefthander Kazuki Nishijima, a senior at Meiji University in Tokyo.
Reports from Japan have also mentioned the Orioles, but their current regime has a terrible reputation in Asia
. The Mariners are typically aggressive for talent all over the world, but the team just parted ways with former vice president of international scouting Bob Engle and has yet to announce his replacement. The Yankees are also active in the Far East, but they are pretty much tapped out having spent a combined $2.9 million on Venezuelan catcher Luis Torrens, Venezuelan outfielder Alexander Palma, Dominican shortstop Yancarlos Baez and Nicaraguan lefthander Corby McCoy. The Cubs, Indians, Athletics, Pirates, Twins and Royals have all signed Asian amateur players in recent years—mainly in Taiwan and South Korea—but most of those teams have already committed substantial chunks of their international pool space for the 2012-13 signing period to Latin American signings.
Then again, this is the world of international scouting, where it's not difficult to circumvent
the international bonus pools. While the reputation of Latin America is the Wild West, dealings in Asia are also notorious for unscrupulous behavior. Otani making the jump to the U.S. (or even publicly stating that he's considering signing with a major league team) is a potentially flammable situation that is certain to draw the ire of Japanese baseball officials.
Otani is the equivalent of a U.S. high school draft pick and would probably begin his career in low Class A. So how does he compare to the top high school pitchers in the 2012 draft? He grades out behind Nationals righthander Lucas Giolito
(No. 8 on the BA 500, No. 16 overall pick) and Padres lefthander Max Fried
(No. 11 on the BA 500, No. 8 overall pick). He would also rank behind Lance McCullers
, the No. 13 prospect on the BA 500 who signed with the Astros for $2.5 million as their supplemental first-round pick.
Otani is probably not a Top 100 prospect, but he is a quality arm and could be the equivalent of a late first-round talent. He fits in comparably with first-rounders like Yankees righthander Ty Hensley
(No. 23 on the BA 500, No. 30 overall pick), Braves righthander Luke Sims
(No. 29 on the BA 500, No. 21 overall pick) and Reds righthander Nick Travieso
(No. 40 on the BA 500, No. 14 overall pick).
If he does sign with a major league team, Otani should be in line for a seven-figure bonus. Comparing money paid to international prospects is dicey due to the factors that go into those bonuses (including corruption), but Otani is a better prospect than 16-year-old Venezuelan lefthander Jose Castillo, who signed with the Rays for $1.55 million in July, and 16-year-old Venezuelan righthander Jose Mujica, who some teams preferred to Castillo and signed for $1 million.
Otani may end up the top international amateur free agent signing of the 2012-13 signing period. Whether he's even the best high school prospect in his own country, however, is still up for debate.
Contributing: Nathan Rode