Japanese baseball rattled as prodigy targets majors


The brass of Japanese baseball are concerned about a potential exodus of premier talent to the major leagues, after high school pitching prospect Shohei Otani revealed his decision Sunday to forgo a career at home in favor of playing in the United States.

“There is a clear and present danger of talent being hollowed out of our game,” Yomiuri Giants team president Tsunekazu Momoi said. “We need to take this opportunity to discuss whether the existing rules are working, and how we can sell Japanese baseball to someone whose goal is to play in America.”

Otani’s decision came as something of a shock to Nippon Professional Baseball teams, who were planning to select him in the first round of Thursday’s amateur draft. Otani will be the first potential No. 1 pick to go straight from a Japanese high school to the United States.

“We’ve got to head back to the drawing board,” said Shigeru Ishiwata, head of development with the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks. “We’re at a blank.”

Added Seibu Lions official Mitsuru Okuzono, “It’s just nothing short of disappointing.”

Standing 193 cm, the 18-year-old right-hander from Iwate Prefecture’s Hanamaki Higashi High School has a similar stature to Yu Darvish, while his 160 km-per-hour fastball is the fastest ever recorded by a high school player in Japan.

Otani has met with representatives from the Boston Red Sox, Texas Rangers and Los Angeles Dodgers, and several other big league clubs are reportedly interested.

The Dodgers, who have scouted Otani since he was a freshman and are flowing with cash under new ownership, were the first in line to meet the prodigy and are tipped to be the favorites to sign him.

In 2008, Junichi Tazawa bolted from the corporate league to the majors, signing with the Red Sox as the first top amateur to bypass the Japanese draft.

Tazawa’s choice rang alarm bells, leading NPB to prohibit future players signing directly with overseas teams from playing in Japan for a minimum of two to three years once they leave the country.

It evidently has not been enough to prevent the likes of Otani pursuing a career in the majors, where the pay and level of competition are far beyond those of Japan’s top leagues.

Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles manager Senichi Hoshino said the bans of two years for corporate and university players, and the three years for high schoolers, just are not enough to stop the bleeding — or the loss of talent that fails to prosper stateside.

“It’s too short and not good enough,” Hoshino said. “You’ve got to put measures in place so that if they go, they know they have to commit over there.

“That will weed out who really wants to go and who doesn’t, and will get them to work even harder to make it in the majors.”

NPB commissioner Ryozo Kato, however, appears to be taking a more cautious stance on tightening the rules on restricting players who decide to sign directly with major league teams from joining Japanese teams later.

“I think we should respect his (Otani’s) decision,” said Kato. “If there is a proposal I think it will be debated, but basically I believe it is important that Japanese baseball becomes more attractive to players. Looking ahead at the future, I think all of the 12 teams must think about ways of making it more attractive.”