SEATTLE — With Japanese star Shohei Otani considering a jump to a Major League Baseball team, commissioner Rob Manfred said he believes it will be hard for teams to circumvent existing contract rules in pursuit of the coveted two-way player.
Otani’s situation was among several issues, including pace of play, expanded rosters in September and a selected site for a proposed new stadium in Oakland, that were addressed by Manfred before Wednesday night’s game between the Texas Rangers and Seattle Mariners.
Otani, a 23-year-old outfielder and right-handed pitcher, could sign a far more lucrative deal if he waited two years to join a big league club. But he is expected to leave Japan after this season, according to multiple Japanese media reports.
“He’s a great player,” Manfred said. “We want to have the best players in the world playing in Major League Baseball. I’m hopeful that at some point, when it’s right for him and right for the team that he’s under contract to, they make a decision to allow the player to come here and play. I think it would be a very exciting thing for Major League Baseball.”
Otani, the reigning Pacific League MVP, is in his fifth season with the Nippon Ham Fighters.
As part of the collective bargaining agreement MLB teams and players agreed to in November, the dividing line for international amateurs and professionals was changed from age 23 with five professional seasons to 25 with six seasons. Because of that, Otani would be subject this offseason to signing bonus pools that limit bonuses.
MLB teams are prohibited from sidestepping the restrictions, such as with an unannounced agreement for future seasons, and would receive harsh punishment if caught by the commissioner’s office. Because of that, Otani has economic incentive to wait two years before leaving for MLB. He would then be considered a professional.
“With respect to the speculation about what clubs are going to do, in today’s basic agreement structure, there’s only so much that you can do in an effort to avoid the rules, and I have an outstanding staff in New York,” Manfred said. “If you’re talking about doing something with a 14-year-old kid in the Dominican Republic that nobody’s ever heard of, you might get past us. Given the focus on Otani, not only by our office, but by the clubs as a group, I think that it’s very, very unlikely that a club is going to be able to avoid the rules and not be caught.”
Addressing the pace of play and length of games also is of primary importance, Manfred said. The average time of game this season is 3:09, according to Baseball Reference, up from 3:04 last season. Game times have climbed almost annually from 2:49 in 2005.
“To me, the biggest picture, we should be focused on dead time in the game,” Manfred said. “We should address those dead-time issues and try to improve our pace of play without making changes that alter the fundamental competition on the field.”
Possible solutions include a pitch clock that he said has been used successfully in the minor leagues, limiting the number of mound visits, and reducing the time between innings.
Roster expansion up to 40 players in September also ties into the length of the game, especially with increased pitching changes, but has other implications for the game as well.
“The 40-man roster was a big topic in the last basic agreement negotiations,” Manfred said. “We actually thought we had an agreement with the union on a set of changes that I thought would be really good for the game, both in terms of making sure that in September we’re playing the game basically the same way we play it the rest of the year, but also in terms of pace of play.”
“We did have a tentative. It did not make its way into the final agreement,” he added. “I think that’s unfortunate.”
Manfred was pleased with the choice of a site near Laney College for a new stadium by the Oakland Athletics and hopes the project moves forward. Tampa Bay’s stadium situation also needs to be addressed, he said, before thoughts of possible expansion.
Because he was speaking in Seattle, Manfred was asked about neighboring Portland, Oregon, as a possibility for an expansion team.
“In terms of sequencing the issues, it’s important to get Oakland and Tampa resolved before we move ahead with expansion,” he said. “Portland would be on a list, yeah. I think Portland’s a possibility. If we were going to go to 32, we’d need a Western time zone team. We’d need at least one more. And you can think about the prospects on the West Coast probably as effectively as I can.”