Despite Shohei Otani being a top international prospect, the Washington Nationals should avoid him as long as he wants to play two ways.
Not because he is oozing talent, a mix of Max Scherzer and Ichiro Suzuki, but because National League rules neuter his capabilities. If in Washington, there is no way the Nats would allow him to both pitch and play the field. As an investment, he would be too valuable to risk.
Otani is a hitting machine developing a power stroke. In 2016, his last healthy season, he powered 22 home runs while putting up a slash line of .322/.416/.588. An OPS of 1.004 is never a bad thing. Last year, in 65 games, he hit .332.
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Primarily a right fielder, teams drool at the thought of his production. In 231 plate appearances last year, he did not ground into a double play. Otani hits for doubles, 16 last season and 70 in 403 career games. Although his numbers do not jump off the page, when you consider he is a pitcher, then the story changes.
As a starter with the Nippon Ham Fighters of the Japanese Pacific League, Otani is an established ace. Two years ago, he went 10-4 in 20 starts with an ERA of 1.86. Over 140 innings, he scattered 80 hits while fanning a gaudy 174. With decent control, 45 walks, his WHIP was a remarkable 0.957.
Considering his age, 23, most teams will consider him a starting pitching candidate. The Nats are in need of a fifth starter. So, why is this not a good fit?
There is no sign Otani is ready to settle either as solely a pitcher or an outfielder. No way they stick him in left or right two days a week around his starts. Not with Adam Eaton, Bryce Harper established on the corners with Michael Taylor in center.
If the designated hitter was the rule in the NL, Otani could do both. His injury risks are lower as a hitter while he takes the hill on regular rest. With strikeout rates like Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg, his primary role is pitching.
Which is why an American League team is his likely destination. They will showcase his abilities to play both sides of the ball. If Otani wants to do both, there are plenty of teams who will be happy to let him hit.
Remember, this is not a true free agency signing with Otani. Nippon will sell him to the highest bidder who then gets to negotiate a deal with him. Ultimately, he will land where he wants, but the process is not simple.
Unless Otani is a one-way player, Washington and most NL clubs cannot give what he desires. If he is 75 percent of his JPL numbers, he is an ace-in-waiting who hits like a young Daniel Murphy.
That is too bad.