MLB Rumors: Will the Pittsburgh Pirates Pursue Shohei Otani?

By Jeff Moore

The Pittsburgh Pirates haven’t been mentioned among the organizations pursuing Japanese 18-year-old right-hander Shohei Otani, but they need insert themselves into the conversation.

Not surprisingly, the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox, Los Angeles Dodgers and Texas Rangers have all expressed their interest in Otani. But unlike in the past, when big wallets automatically gave those organizations an advantage in the international market, there is now a more even playing field.

Under Major League Baseball’s new Collective Bargaining Agreement, there is a $2.9 million spending limit per year for each organization to spend on the international free agent market. It’s not a hard limit, but any team going over that mark will have to pay an additional financial penalty, similar to what was set up in this past year’s draft. In the 2012 draft, no team went over their spending limit far enough to incur a significant financial penalty, but it remains to be seen if teams will hold as strong on the international market.

The lure of Otani may be enough for teams to pay more.

Otani is far from a sure thing. He brings with him the same risks of drafting an American pitcher out of high school. But, what it doesn’t cost teams is a valuable draft pick, and that $2.9 million limit is significantly less than it costs to sign an early first round pick. Most scouts agree, even those that aren’t as sold on Otani’s ability, that he would be selected near the top of the first round if he were eligible for the 2013 draft, if not selected first overall.

A team like the Pirates has to take advantage of these opportunities even more so than other teams with bigger budgets. Otani is not the answer to the Pirates problems, but he does present an opportunity to obtain a top-pick talent at a lower-pick price. It’s the baseball equivalent of finding an expensive watch half-off at TJ Maxx.

The Pirates aren’t the first organization that comes to mind when it comes to international free agents, but they have been active in the past. They managed to lure Luis Heredia out of Mexico at the age of 16 when he had multiple suitors in the summer of 2010, and ponied up the $2.6 million it took to get him. That signing was helped along by a previously established relationship between the Pirates front office and people in Heredia’s camp, but that doesn’t mean that the Pirates can’t be players with Otani.

The Rangers may have the lead in this race, thanks to their presence in Japan in recent years and the fact that they already have a high-profile Japanese pitcher, Yu Darvish, on their pitching staff. But other than that, most teams are on an even playing field when it comes to the pursuit of Otani.

The big spenders are always the ones linked to high-profile international free agents, but they can spend their money anywhere. Teams near the bottom of the league in spending need to find the best way to maximize the return for their money, and investing in Otani is a great opportunity for the Pirates to do just that.

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