Shohei Otani is less your run-of-the-mill prospect and more like a legendary user-created video game character.
In 2016, Otani tore up the Japanese league as both a pitcher and hitter. Otani boasted a 10-4 record with 1.86 ERA in 140 innings, while striking out 11.2 batters per nine. He also hit .322/.416/.588 with 22 home runs.
And it's not like he was playing in some joker league - the Japan Pacific League has been likened to the equivalent of a "Quad-A" minor league team, somewhere between the quality of play of the Majors and Triple-A Minors.
Otani is a unique prospect. His stuff is electric - his average fastball is 96.2 MPH and tops out in the 100's, while he also boasts an 89 MPH slider and a 94 MPH forkball.
He has the makeup to be an ace in the majors, but what's more impressive, and frankly odd, is his hitting prowess. He has the talent to be a legitimate MLB batter, and that's exactly what he did in Japan, as he hit DH on the days in which he wasn't the starting pitcher.
Otani has expressed interest in playing in the MLB on the condition that he's allowed to both pitch and hit, and that is a caveat that might throw some teams off. Baseball clubs are usually very protective of their pitchers - especially when that pitcher has the potential to be one of the league's top five aces. It would take an eccentric club that thinks outside of the box to take a chance on Otani - and that's where the Astros come in.
The Astros are a fairly unconventional team - they consistently use defensive shifts more than any other team in baseball, they've experimented with almost purely power hitting lineups - so if any team were to buck baseball tradition and let a player be both a starting pitcher and an everyday hitter, it would be the Luhnow and the rest of his brain trust.
It's worth noting that it's not as if every team doesn't want Otani - it's just that many clubs will likely be scared away his steep price due to their reluctance to allow him to both pitch and hit.
Some have argued that Otani is more likely to sign with a team in the National League due to the designated hitter rules but I find this unconvincing - if a team is allowing Otani to hit, why also risk injury by letting him field? Yes, the Astros would potentially have to sacrifice the DH in games in which Otani was the starting pitcher to allow him to also bat, but on the other games he would be able to hit without having to take the field. Potentially, Otani could fix the Astros problem at DH and starting pitching in one full swoop.
Otani is under contract with the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters through 2019, with a $20 million release fee. Whoever takes a shot on Otani will be paying a steep price, another reason I think the Astros could emerge as front runners to sign him.
To open 2016, the Astros again had the lowest payroll in baseball at $69 million, so they have the money to spend. Jim Crane and Jeff Luhnow know the core of the team is in place and the team needs to spend now to win, and at 22 Otani would be no veteran rental deal.
The Astros are not shy when it comes to going after international free agents - they signed Yulieski Gourriel this season, and made pushes for Masahiro Tanaka and Jose Abreu when they first came to the MLB.
On top of that, Shohei Otani is a star in Japan. His signing could potentially lead to a huge Japanese market for the Astros, similar to the Chinese market the Rockets entered when they drafted Yao Ming and then signed Jeremy Lin.
Many teams will be bidding for Otani, and I think the Astros will be one of them. They've shown the willingness to pursue players like Otani, have the money to do it, and have the groundwork of a massive Japanese market laid out for them. It may very well come down to which team allows Otani to both pitch and hit if the money is similar - and that very well could bode in the Astros favor.