The Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters maintained their status as the mavericks of Nippon Professional Baseball’s amateur draft on Thursday, when they selected high school pitcher Shohei Otani in the first round, despite his expressed desire to pursue a deal with a major league team.
Last year, the Fighters used their first-round pick on Tokai University pitcher Tomoyuki Sugano, who proved as good as his word when he said he would sign with no club other than the Yomiuri Giants. The Giants, managed by Sugano’s uncle, Tatsunori Hara, was the only team to draft the right-hander this season after he sat out the entire 2012 campaign.
Otani, a hard-throwing 193-cm right-hander from Iwate Prefecture’s Hanamaki Higashi High School who has already met with three major league teams and announced his decision to pass on NPB on Sunday, is now in the sights of Fighters manager Hideki Kuriyama.
“Our draft selection represents an opportunity to present our team and the merits of playing with us, if he’ll meet with us, that is,” said Kuriyama, who first met the pitcher last year in the aftermath of the earthquake and nuclear disaster that devastated the Tohoku region where his school is located.
“You don’t see high school pitchers throwing the ball the way he could. I thought he was an exceptional baseball player and a young man of quality.”
The Fighters may try to sweeten the deal by offering Otani an early posting deal that would give him the chance of going to the majors much earlier than the time required to be an unrestricted free agent.
Unlike Major League Baseball’s amateur draft, teams that fail to sign a drafted player get no additional picks in the following year’s draft. The cost of drafting Sugano represented a missed opportunity to go after another player with potential in the first round. By selecting Otani, the team is exposing itself to that risk for the second straight year.
The pitcher’s stance, however, has not changed after learning of Nippon Ham’s selection.
“My own feelings are unchanged,” he said. “I am grateful they value me so highly. Right now, I am going to just practice in order to achieve my own goals.”
In addition to Sugano, the Fighters also drafted outfielder Hisayoshi Chono in 2006, who had proclaimed his wish to play only for the Giants and did not sign. The year before that, they won the draft rights for high school shortstop Daikan Yoh and convinced him to sign despite his desire to play with his older brother with Softbank. Yoh is now the Fighters’ regular center fielder as they approach the start of the Japan Series.
“I think if he were to play with us for a year, he would understand how tremendous the environment is and what wonderful teammates he would have with us,” Kuriyama said. “I have confidence in our organization.”
Softbank Hawks chairman Sadaharu Oh won the negotiating rights to Asia University right-hander Nao Higashihama in a three-way lottery. The Hanshin Tigers won a four-way lottery for the rights to the brightest star at this year’s national high school baseball championship, Shintaro Fujinami of Osaka Toin High School.