Shohei Otani, 18, always dreamed of pitching in the major leagues, elevating himself to become Japan’s top high school baseball player at Hanamaki Higashi High School.
Faced with the opportunity to make the leap abroad, he announced he would forego the Japanese leagues for a chance to hone his skills in “a tough environment.”
One problem. Japan’s major league, Nippon Professional Baseball, isn’t ready to let him go so easily.
On Thursday, the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters, the former team of Texas Rangers pitcher Yu Darvish, selected the Japanese phenom in the first round, against his wishes, setting the stage for a potential bidding war between the world’s two biggest baseball leagues.
“We want to get the best available player this year as the team’s first pick,” manager Hideki Kuriyama told reporters the day before the draft. “We apologize to Otani, but I believe this will only be a positive.”
Otani’s desire to start his professional career in the United States marks a first for the NPB, which has lost its best players to U.S. clubs over the years.
The 6-foot-3 right hander from northeast Japan had long been projected to be a top draft pick, attracting attention with his commanding 99 mile per hour fastball. But the teenager surprised Japanese clubs over the weekend with his decision.
Following news the Fighters had drafted him, Otani said his decision remained unchanged.
“I was honestly surprised (with the draft), ” he told reporters in a widely followed press conference. “I am still determined to go to the U.S.”
The Dodgers, Yankees, Orioles and Rangers have all reportedly expressed interest.
The Fighter’s decision to move forward with Otani and risk being shunned speaks to concerns that have persisted in Japanese baseball since former Dodgers pitcher Hideo Nomo made the successful leap to the major leagues, prompting a slew of other top players to leave Japan, including Ichiro Suzuki with the Yankees, and Red Sox pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka.
While the Fighters now have exclusive rights to negotiate with Otani in Japan, NPB rules do not prohibit the player from speaking to MLB teams. They are expected to offer lucrative contracts that far exceed anything Otani is likely to receive from the Fighters.
But the NPB has taken other steps to try and stop the bleeding.
After Red Sox pitcher Junichi Tazawa opted to play in the U.S., NPB implemented the so-called “Tazawa rule” which essentially punished players who opted to go abroad before playing professionally in Japan.
If Otani eventually decides to play in the Japanese leagues, he’ll have to sit out three years.