By Ernie Palladino
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Brian Cashman might well have offered a small, silent prayer of thanks to the MLB Players Association before he gobbled down his turkey dinner Thursday.
In coming to a posting agreement with Japanese baseball, the union opened the door for Cashman and the rest of the teams in the majors to get in on the bidding for Shohei Otani, the great pitcher/hitter of the Nippon-Ham Fighters. According to recent published reports, the Yanks are the early favorites to land a kid who already wears the honorarium of “The Babe Ruth of Japan.”
How nice the 23-year-old Otani would look in pinstripes is almost beyond debate. This is a franchise that has historically chased the splashy offseason signing. Remember Catfish Hunter on New Year’s Eve, 1974?
Though few other signings have coincided with the holidays, high-profile free agents have always gravitated toward the Bronx: Wade Boggs, Rickey Henderson, Don Baylor, Dave Winfield. The list goes on.
And that doesn’t account for the imports like current pitcher Masahiro Tanaka and former slugger Hideki Matsui, whose name debuts on the Hall of Fame ballot this year.
The Yanks have always held an attraction for talent, be it home-grown or foreign. The history, the exposure, and the endorsement riches just waiting to be plucked on Madison Avenue have always made the Yanks a favorable landing spot for those seeking their shot at the big bucks and the spotlight.
The thing about this signing, though, would be that Otani would have to wait for baseball to turn on the money faucet. Because he has yet to turn 25, the rules say the Yanks can offer him no more than the $3.5 million they have in the international talent pool. That’s not so great for Otani, but stupendous for a team trying to get under the $197 million luxury tax threshold.
Otani could opt to stay in Japan two more years and then take a shot at an unlimited contract, probably in excess of the $155 million Tanaka got when he came over in 2014. But Otani’s impatience to get his American career started will probably win out. So for two years, the Yanks could get a front-line starter who can also handle the bat for peanuts.
That’s a reason to give thanks in itself. The right-handed Otani is considered a No. 1 starter. Even if Luis Severino takes that role, imagine a rotation that starts off with two guys who can both mix 100 mph fastballs in with an equally effective repertoire. In Otani’s case, that would be a 94 mph slider, a splitter, and a changeup, all of which has allowed him to accumulate 624 strikeouts against 200 walks in 543 career innings.
Follow that up with Tanaka, Sonny Gray, and Jordan Montgomery, and that rotation would automatically turn from sketchy to formidable.
The Yankees wouldn’t have to worry about any hitting woes in interleague road games, either. Otani, who hits left, is a career .286 hitter who could generate 30 to 35 homers with daily usage.
Otani wants regular at-bats. The scouts say that would just be asking for trouble. He’s a better value as a pitcher. And given the lower leg problems that limited him to 65 games and five starts this season, any team he lands with would want to specialize his role. But just the thought of putting him in the lineup with Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez, and Greg Bird is enough to generate chills of excitement up and down the spinal column.
But that’s all to be hashed out once he gets here. At this point, the Yanks don’t even know who will manage him or what the new guy’s philosophy will look like.
For now, Cashman can just be thankful that his team will be in the thick of the race for a top-line talent that won’t cost him much more than the cranberry sauce he ladled next to his turkey.
And if Otani ultimately decides to move to New York on or before the signing deadline two days before Christmas, that would ensure the veteran GM of a great holiday season.
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