The Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters will roll the dice and select fireballer Shohei Otani in the first round of Thursday’s amateur draft even though the high school phenom has already stated he wants to play in the major leagues.
“I know he wants to go to the majors, but we’re making him our No. 1 pick,” Fighters general manager Masao Yamada said Wednesday.
Otani, the 18-year-old from Iwate Prefecture’s Hanamaki Higashi High School with a fastball touching 160 kph on the gun, announced on Sunday that he will bypass Nippon Professional Baseball to sign with one of several major-league teams who are in pursuit of the 193-cm right-hander.
Otani will be the first potential top draft pick to make the direct jump from a Japanese high school to the majors.
Yet despite Otani’s intentions, the Fighters will still select him in the first round with the outstretched hopes of changing his mind by the end of March, when they would hold exclusive negotiating rights — but only among NPB teams.
The Fighters cannot stop any club from the majors like the Los Angeles Dodgers, Texas Rangers or Boston Red Sox who all have met with Otani, from working on a deal with the teenager.
Yamada said Nippon Ham had its mind set on Otani after scouting him at the under-18 world championships in South Korea last month. The Fighters also threw the draft in a loop last year, when they picked Tokai University pitcher Tomoyuki Sugano, the nephew of Yomiuri manager Tatsunori Hara, who had made it clear that he would only play for the Giants.
Sugano did not sign and has sat out the past year. If he is drafted by any team other than the Giants, Sugano said he will try to play in the majors.
“We’re going to stick to our guns just like last year,” Yamada said. “We decided to take (Otani) even before he announced his decision to play in the majors.”
“We can’t say with any certainty that he will play for us. For sure, we’ll have to be prepared for the worst.”
Gondo leaving Dragons
Chunichi has parted ways with pitching coach Hiroshi Gondo who often clashed with manager Morimichi Takagi during a year that ended with the Dragons blowing a two-game lead over the Yomiuri Giants in the final stage of the Climax Series.
The 73-year-old Gondo, a Chunichi old boy who managed the Yokohama BayStars to the 1998 Japan Series title, returned to the dugout after a 10-year absence to supplant first-year manager Takagi.
The Dragons reached the postseason after finishing second in the Central League, and took a 3-1 series lead in the final stage against the Giants but lost three straight, failing to make the Japan Series.
Gondo was seen arguing with Takagi during the collapse, and Chunichi did not deny the manager influenced the decision.
“The manager did have a say in it,” team representative Ryohei Sato said. “We needed to put together a coaching staff that could be there for the manager after Takagi and beyond.”
Gondo said he had mixed emotions about the year the Dragons had.
“The players battled and I’m proud of them,” he said. “But we couldn’t win after getting that close. It’s complicated.”