Tampa Bay Rays: Could they actually woo Japanese star Shohei Otani?

Photo by Masterpress/Getty Images
Photo by Masterpress/Getty Images /

The Tampa Bay Rays probably aren’t very high on anyone’s list of possible landing spots for Shohei Otani, but it may not be as crazy as you think.

It’s not often that the Tampa Bay Rays are in play on a major free agent. Japanese sensation Shohei Otani, however, is no typical free agent. Recent reports suggest the two-way star is indeed set on jumping to MLB for next season, and the Rays could be a dark horse candidate to secure his services.

According to Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times, the organization’s interest in Otani is “sincere.” How do they hope to lure the 23-year-old phenom over decidedly higher-profile destinations? By their commitment to development and willingness to let him both pitch and hit, per Topkin.

It might not seem like much, but those factors could give Tampa Bay somewhat of an edge over other clubs. While their pitching pipeline hasn’t been quite as productive as in years past, the Rays have plenty of experience bringing along effective major league arms. Otani is still very much young enough to benefit from that expertise.

We’ve been hearing for a while that Otani is also interested in plying both sides of his trade in the U.S. Many pundits and fans have debated the wisdom of letting him fill the designated hitter spot on days he doesn’t pitch. It would be a risky maneuver, and there certainly isn’t a plethora of two-way success stories in recent MLB history.

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Nevertheless, the Rays are the kind of franchise that could afford to take a chance on something like this. Amid talk of starting their own TV network, a double-threat Otani would be just the kind of must-see attraction that would get fans to tune in, and maybe even walk through the gates of Tropicana Field. (Crazy, we know.)

Another thing to keep in mind is that the Otani sweepstakes, should it occur this winter, won’t be a free-for-all bidding war. New rules in the latest collective bargaining agreement put a cap on how much international free agents in Otani’s age bracket can earn. This levels the playing field a bit, giving the Rays much more of a fighting chance against the big-market giants that would normally swallow them up in any offseason negotiations.

Otani is coming off something of an uneven season for the Nippon Ham Fighters, particularly on the mound where he posted a 4.96 ERA as injuries limited him to four starts. He still swung the bat exceptionally well, slashing .340/.413/.557 with eight home runs and 31 RBI in 63 games. Given Otani’s youth and obvious potential, this year’s hiccups will do little to deter the interest of MLB teams.

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Fascination with Otani has been brewing stateside for years, and the story may come to a head in the next few months. Landing with the Rays still feels like a long shot: While their interest should be noted, more clubs have been linked to Otani than not by this point. Regardless, it would be quite the twist in the tale and in a situation that is atypical in so many ways, nothing should be completely discounted.