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White Sox can wait on Shohei Otani longer than others

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In a turn of events, Sox could be able to compete with fewer restrictions

South Korea v Japan - WBSC Premier 12 Semi Final Photo by Masterpress/Getty Images

An ankle injury is keeping Japanese two-way megastar Shohei Otani out of the World Baseball Classic. That sucks for a tournament that often finds itself a little short on star power, but it conveniently serves as a metaphor for a bigger annoyance generated by the league’s new collective bargaining agreement.

Among the changes ushered in by the new CBA is a firmly enforced international spending limit that keeps the average pool around $5 million. Much like the ankle injury, it’s an obstacle that prevents fans from seeing what Otani can do against the world’s best competition.

Because he’s only 22 with four years of professional experience, any contract he signed before 2019 would apply to the paltry $5 million international budget. If he waited three more years to be both 25 years old with six years of pro experience, he could earn, what, 40 times that?

That extreme discrepancy makes it harder for an extreme talent to make the jump, which is preventing the league from more easily attaining a superstar. The self-hampering nature of the rule made writers wonder if MLB would allow Otani an exception, and the league says there are no designs in place. The overall spending limit is a big-enough victory for most owners to make up for any individual loss.

Moreover, two years is a long wait for any player who is on the top of his game, much less a pitcher, and Otani can’t do much more in either facet for the Nippon Ham Fighters. His numbers from last season:

  • At the plate: .322/.416/.588, 18 2B, 22 HR, 67 RBI over 104 games.
  • On the mound: 10-4, 1.86 ERA, 140 IP, 89 H, 4 HR, 45 BB, 174 K

That’s why it’d be easy to succumb to impatience, and it’d be to the league’s benefit if he did, since abiding by the $5 million limit (with a $20 million posting fee) would give every team a shot. The Fighters aren’t helping in this regard, as it’s been leaked that they are likely to post him after the season despite no time pressures to do so.

In a wide-ranging story about Otani by Bleacher Report’s Scott Miller this week, Otani summed up his dilemma:

"Personally, the new CBA rules do not mean much to me, and it is not going to stop me from going over to the States," Ohtani tells B/R. "The only thing that worries me is the other young players that might try to go overseas after me. I don't want to set the bar too low for them and have to get underpaid because of my decision."

You might notice the discrepancy in the spelling of his last name. Both “Otani” and “Ohtani” are apparently correct, because neither is exactly right.

There’s an even bigger variation in Otani’s earning potential and market competition, so it’s pointless to put a likelihood on any price or landing spot. But it did remind me that the White Sox have only flirted with a nine-figure contract once in recent history, and it was in the hunt for Masahiro Tanaka.

The White Sox stayed in the Tanaka sweepstakes until the end of the 2013-14 offseason. They were one of a handful of teams to submit a formal offer, and most were said to be at least six years and $100 million. Whether the White Sox hit those magic numbers, it would’ve topped the record $68 million commitment to Jose Abreu regardless, even before including the posting fee.

Besides the money, the White Sox’ involvement was notable for how public it was. Both Rick Hahn and Kenny Williams shared their interest in Tanaka with the media. Williams foreshadowed the White Sox’ likeliness of being outbid by saying, “We don’t believe that money will be the biggest factor.”

And so of course Tanaka signed with the Yankees for $25 million or so more than other teams reportedly offered. The whole thing came off as quixotic, although Hahn said otherwise:

"I will say there have been multiple reports about the magnitude of our offer, the seriousness of our offer and for once, these rumors seem to be somewhat accurate in terms of the intensity of our pursuit and our efforts to get this done."

Besides the total dollars involved, the more you learned about the contract — four-year opt-out, no-trade clause -- the less likely the White Sox would have been anything better than leverage.

But even if they never had a chance, it was a harmless distraction — and maybe even good marketing — in the fortnight leading into SoxFest. The White Sox had an exciting offseason, signing Abreu and trading for Adam Eaton, so why not keep talking to players who could similarly contribute immediately and in the future?

If the White Sox somehow matched the Yankees’ terms -- $155 million over seven years, with an opt-out after four years and $88 million — he actually would have fit in nicely with the first attempt at rebuilding. He’s 39-16 with a 3.12 ERA (132 ERA+) while making 20, 24 and 31 starts over his first three seasons, and he managed to work past a variety of arm troubles to come within one out of 200 innings in 2016.

It’s hard to say how Tanaka’s salary would have affected other pursuits, so you can’t apply him to rosters of the last few years and call it a day. Yet the concern is diminished when considering the $20+ million spent on disappointments like Jeff Samardzija, Mat Latos and James Shields over the last two seasons, which brings a Bill Veeck quote to mind.

If Otani comes to the majors under the international spending limits, then the Sox will have competition with all but a few of the other MLB teams. Combine the posting fee ($20 million), maximum bonus ($4.75 to $5.25 million) and a minimal pre-arbitration salary, and that’s a $27 million commitment that covers three seasons. Maybe it goes up to $30 million or whatever for teams that can acquire other teams’ international bonus money in trades, but every club not serving out a penalty for previous spending sprees should take a crack at Otani under any capped price. One would think the more prestigious teams and/or more geographically friendly markets have the edge under these circumstances.

If it’s about 2019 and after, that might be when the Sox can afford to splurge, and when they can gain separation from the majority of the league. Hahn hasn’t ruled out a major expenditure if and when the rebuild can afford such a finishing move, assuming they don’t take any third-tier shortcuts this time around. Maybe Otani is already in the States by then, or maybe he doesn’t make sense for the price under those circumstances, but the White Sox’ last known read on NPB talent has held up pretty well.