TORONTO – The less-than-illustrious list of Japanese-born players to suit up for the Toronto Blue Jays runs from Micheal Nakamura in 2004 to Nori Aoki this year, bookending the service of Tomo Ohka, Ryota Igarashi and enduring fan favourite Munenori Kawasaki. Left-hander Ken Takahashi, the only player signed directly from the Land of The Rising Sun, on a minor-league deal at that, made it through a month of spring training before he was released. A revered pantheon of franchise heroes it is not.
To be fair, it’s not surprising given that Japan and Asia were largely ignored by the Blue Jays up until 2013, when the highly respected Dan Evans took over as the team’s head of Pacific Rim operations. Even with his wide network of contacts and relentless work in the region, one man can only establish so much of a foothold, especially with the club’s scouting resources almost solely directed to the far more fertile player pools in Latin America internationally and on the amateur side in North America.
All of which brings us to the present and the tantalizing possibility of Shohei Otani, the pitching/slugging Japanese sensation the Nippon Ham Fighters have reportedly agreed to post this winter.
The Blue Jays, like any responsible club, have picked up their scouting of the 23-year-old in recent weeks, with Evans joined by director of pro scouting Ryan Mittleman and major-league scouts Jon Lalonde and Jim Skaalen, among others at recent games. Mittleman is aiming to extend the club’s presence on the Pacific Rim and assistant general manager Andrew Tinnish is still in the country as the Blue Jays try to get a variety of looks at him from different staffers. It’s an aggressive posture that extends beyond the type of due diligence they’ve done for hyped stars like Yu Darvish and Masahiro Tanaka ahead of their postings.
The temptation is to put two and two together and believe they’re gearing up for a serious run at Otani, which they very well might be. But getting his signature on a contract isn’t as simple as backing up a truck of money and dumping it on his lawn.
Since he’s under 25, his bonus would count against a team’s international bonus pool, which is hard capped between $4.75 to $5.75 million depending on a club’s market size and revenue. Teams can acquire up to 75 per cent of their pool allotment via trade, and even if some do, the separation in dollars will still be relatively limited versus all but the 11 teams, including the Dodgers and Cubs, who can’t offer more than $300,000 as a penalty for previous overages.
The Blue Jays are better off in that regard but are still largely tapped out of their $4.75 million bonus pool after spending big on July 2 international free agents, headlined by the $1.4 million given to right-hander Eric Pardinho. They did acquire some pool room from the St. Louis Cardinals in a trade for minor-leaguer Lane Thomas back in July, but have only slightly more than $1 million to work with right now.
Still, as detailed by Sportsnet’s Arden Zwelling in a thorough and excellent feature on Otani from February, money doesn’t seem like it will be the sole factor at play here, although some sort of side deal for a nine-figure extension may very well be part of the negotiation (Dave Cameron at FanGraphs ran through some of the possibilities). Rather, situation and fit will be important and perhaps the Blue Jays’ limited history with Japanese players becomes a factor.
Of the group to have played in Toronto, only Kawasaki spent an extended period of time with the club, appearing in 201 games from 2013-15. He speaks very well of the Blue Jays and has fond memories of the city as his first son, Issho, was born there in 2013. "He is Canuck, eh!” Kawasaki memorably said afterwards.
Otani and Kawasaki have worked out together and Toronto is sure to have come up, but Otani looks up to Darvish, and could very well wait to see where the right-hander ends up in free agency before making his decision. The Dodgers might have an inside track not only because of Darvish’s time there, but also because he nearly signed with them out of high school in Japan before deciding to start his career with the Fighters instead.
What’s clear is Otani wants to come over to both pitch and hit, something the Blue Jays, at least, are willing to let him do. Beyond that, his wants and expectations are shrouded in mystery since he hasn’t even designated an agent yet, so while teams have had contact with him, there’s no one there to establish parameters.
In the interim, the Blue Jays are doing all they can to be prepared, just in case an opportunity to dramatically alter their history with Japanese players becomes a realistic possibility.