Despite Being Drafted, Shohei Otani Can Sign Any Time

The Nippon-Ham Fighters drafted Shohei Otani today, but that doesn't mean Otani will be delayed from signing with a Major League Baseball team if he wants to come to the United States.

While the Fighters have exclusive negotiating rights with Otani among teams in Japan's Nippon Professional Baseball, Otani is still free to sign with an MLB team at any time, an MLB official confirmed.

Otani, an 18-year-old Japanese high school righthander, has stated publicly both before and after the NPB draft that his desire is to sign directly with an MLB team. Just as an MLB draft pick in the U.S. is free to sign with a Japanese team instead, Otani could choose to decline an offer from the Fighters and join an MLB club, and he doesn't have to wait to make a decision.

An MLB team signing Otani would likely rankle the Fighters and other Japanese baseball officials, but there is nothing really preventing him from signing with an MLB team. The club signing him would likely argue that Otani should be free to decide where he wants to play and should not be restricted to playing under the Japanese professional baseball system simply because he was born there.

If the Fighters sign Otani and try to post him, Otani would still fall under the $2.9 million international bonus pools for the 2012-13 signing period, the MLB official confirmed. While Otani would no longer be an amateur player, foreign professionals need to be at least 23 and have at least five years in a recognized pro league. such as NPB, to be exempt from the bonus pools.

Righthander Shintaro Fujinami, who was drafted by the Hanshin Tigers, has told sources that he will start his professional career in Japan. While Otani has gotten more hype because of his public statements that he would like to sign with an MLB team directly out of high school, several scouts have said they think the 18-year-old Fujinami is the country's top high school prospect.

See also: Baseball America's guide to Shohei Otani and Shintaro Fujinami