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Otani postpones MLB dreams, decides to play for Fighters

Hanamaki Higashi High School phenom Shohei Otani said Sunday he has decided to join the Nippon Ham Fighters, doing an about-face after proclaiming he wished to join the major leagues directly from Japan.

Otani, the highly touted right-hander who clocks a 160 km-per-hour fastball, had said on Oct. 21 that he would like to play for a major league team, but the Fighters named him as their No. 1 draft pick four days later anyway.

“I am determined to be active with the Fighters from my first year,” said Otani. “I thought that it would be better to get my career (in the majors) off the ground quickly so I would be active for a long time. But my feelings changed gradually, and ultimately I made the decision after discussions with my family.”

Otani met with the Fighters several times for talks and was offered a signing bonus of 100 million yen, plus performance incentives of ¥50 million, in their last meeting on Dec. 3.

The team was bent on luring in the 18-year-old, even offering him the No. 11 uniform previously worn by Yu Darvish, who now plays for the Texas Rangers.

It appeared early on that Otani would not budge, having said after he was named as the top draft pick, “My feelings (about going to the majors) will not change.”

But Nippon Ham’s top brass was relentless with Fighters general manager Masao Yamada playing the role of naysayer by detailing the hardships Otani would likely face by a direct move to the majors, and manager Hideki Kuriyama meeting him twice to try and convince him otherwise.

“I’d like to have fans watch me in Japan and return my gratitude. I really want to play in the majors in the future, and it’s a place that I am yearning to go. But I understand now that it’s too soon for me to expect that I could go at this point and be a top player there,” Otani said.

On Nov. 17, the Fighters met with Otani on the insistence of his father Toru and explained benefits of their development contract system for non-roster players.

In Otani’s previous meeting with Kuriyama, he said he would make a decision in the coming week, and his father Toru said his son had begun to take a “positive outlook” on joining the Fighters.

The 193-centimeter Otani played in the 2011 national high school baseball tournament at Koshien Stadium and the national spring invitational this year where his team lost its first game to eventual tournament winner Osaka Toin.