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Otani gets back on the hill as questions about future persist

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Shohei Otani returned to the mound after a long absence on Thursday night.

Now the question is this: How many more times will Japanese fans see the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters sensation take the mound on home soil?

The same questions swirled around former Fighters ace Yu Darvish in 2011, and MLB scouts turned out in droves to see him pitch. Although not quite at the level as on Thursday at Sapporo Dome when scouts from 14 MLB teams (reportedly), and New York Yankees general manager Brian Cashman, were all in attendance to see Otani face the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks.

“On that point, nothing has really changed” Otani told the assembled press after the game, according to Kanako Ishikawa of full-count.jp, when asked about the scouts’ presence. “I want to use today’s pitching as a starting point for next time.”

Otani (0-2) was making his first start since July 12, and third overall if counting his one appearance on the farm, and showed a little rust at times. His fastball touched 160 kph four times and hovered in the mid-to-high 150s over his 64-pitch outing. His control wasn’t always great, though it was better than it was against the Orix Buffaloes in July.

“I didn’t really feel comfortable, but I think it was better than the last time,” Ishikawa quoted Otani as saying.

He faced Yuki Yanagita and Alfredo Despaigne, both of whom could probably be in MLB now, twice. Otani walked Yanagita on five pitches in the second inning and was then fortunate Despaigne’s hard liner went right to the second baseman.

Otani fell behind Yanagita 1-2 in the fourth and the Hawks star fouled off the next two pitches (at 160 and 158 kph) and then took the two after that. Otani’s eighth pitch of the at-bat was a 160-kph heater right down the middle that Yanagita connected on for an RBI single. Despaigne then singled on a slider, before Shuhei Fukuda launched a ball into the seats for a three-run homer, ending Otani’s night.

Otani was tagged for four runs in 3⅓ innings, but there were no alarm bells sounding.

“I have a lot to say about what he has to correct, for example, the approach against batters or allowing a batter to reach base after a certain number of pitches,” Fighters manager Hideki Kuriyama told Ishikawa after the game. “But we knew he would have those kinds of problems at this stage. It’s us, not Shohei, who should be blamed.

“I felt he made the progress with his pitching style and form that we expected. This is just the start for him.”

Now the intrigue is really about to ramp up, as fans in Japan and North American begin to wonder about the 23-year old’s offseason plans.

Will he remain in Japan, or head to MLB?

Several months ago it seemed that he was headed to the majors. That was before MLB’s new collective bargaining agreement, which put a cap on international spending of at most $5.75 million for some teams and $5.25 million to $4.75 million for the rest (per Baseball America), for players under 25. The previous age limit had been 23.

As J.J. Cooper wrote for Baseball America on Thursday, “The new CBA means that if Otani does come over this offseason, he would likely be giving up $100 million or more.”

Then again, Otani has said money wasn’t an issue before and after MLB’s new CBA, and hasn’t said much to the contrary. In November, his manager said the same.

“Money is the last thing on Otani’s mind,” Kuriyama said at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan on Nov. 15. “I can say that because I deal with him every day.”

There is always the possibility he comes back in order to leave on a better note, rather than after a year that injuries kept him from doing much (on the mound at least, as a hitter he’s batting .342 with five homers and 22 RBIs), and chase the Sawamura Award, which he’s said he wants to win.

At the same time, Otani seems earnest in everything he does. He’s reportedly not exactly living a lavish lifestyle at the moment and, from the outside, seems perfectly content with that. If he says money isn’t an issue, as unbelievable as it sounds to many, it simply might not be.

Only time will tell. But when the scouts gather for his next start, Japanese baseball fans might also want to take a good long look.