Coming into the season, the Dodgers' minor league pitching depth was their greatest strength, with three hurlers among Baseball America's top 100 prospects: Zach Lee (62), Allen Webster (95) and Nathan Eovaldi (96). They'd also spent their last ten top picks on pitchers, from Chad Bililngsley in 2002 to Chris Reed in 2011. It seemed like pitching was a strength, but many things change over the course of a season.
Nothing went wrong with Lee, who solidified his place among the top 100 prospects in minor league baseball, reaching Double A prior to his 21st birthday. His numbers weren't overwhelming, but he showed a deep repertoire and advanced aptitude for his age.
The rest of the system, however, took a hit. Webster and Eovaldi were dealt in separate trades to Boston and Miami, respectively. Ethan Martin, who posted a resurgent campaign after being all but forgotten as a pitching prospect, was sent to Philadelphia for Shane Victorino.
Angel Sanchez, who ranked 4th in the organization and I tabbed as a breakout candidate, broke down instead, posting an ERA of over six and a half. Garrett Gould, who ranked fifth in the system entering the year, compiled a 5.75 ERA. Juan Rodriguez came into the year ranked 20th and pitched himself out of High A, back to Low A, where he continued to struggle.
It wasn't all bad news, though. Shawn Tolleson, who ranked #7 in the system coming into the year, reached the majors and stayed there, producing quality relief innings. Chris Reed was limited to just 70 innings, but pitched well in Double A and made the Futures Game roster. And Chris Withrow may have found his niche in the bullpen where, despite his continued control issues, he posted an ERA of 3.28 in 24.2 innings.
However, my initial point remains: the Dodgers' farm system isn't nearly as flush with pitching as it was a year ago. Even with breakout performances from guys like Andres Santiago and Matt Magill or the infusion of amateur talent like Onelki Garcia and Zach Byrd, the system could still use some arms. That's where Shohei Otani comes in.
Otani is bucking the trend in bypassing the Nippon Professional Baseball draft in order to sign with an MLB team. It's customary for even the best Japanese players to play ball in their home country before being posted and signing with an major league team. And while his decision may be questioned, Otani's talent is not.
Shohei has an ideal pitcher's frame at 6'4 and 190 lbs. His build reminds me of Zach Lee's, which makes sense since they're listed at the same size. His legs definitely aren't twigs but they aren't bulky. He has long, skinny arms and long fingers. I've only seen him pitch on a limited amount of video, so don't take the scouting report as gospel.
He features a pretty deep repertoire for a teenager, as I saw him throwing at least 5 different pitches in the video I've seen of him. He throws a fastball that's been clocked as high as 99 and it has some nice armside run on it. He also appears to cut the ball on occasion at around 90. He shows a big, slow curve under 70, a slider in the mid 80s and a changeup in the high 70s.
The slider looks like his best secondary offering at the moment, even though he can get around it at times. The curve is more of a change of pace pitch to throw the hitter's timing off and change his eye level. The changeup had some nice action on it, fading down and away from lefties.
His biggest drawback is a lack of command, so he should fit in the Dodgers' system just fine. While his mechanics are sound, I think getting the ball into the driveline just a little earlier will both reduce the risk of injury and improve his ability to locate his pitches.
So, signing him seems like a no-brainer, right? After all, the Dodgers now have some of the deepest pockets in all of MLB. It figures that, once new ownership took the reigns and started spending like it was going out of style, a new signing restriction governing international talent would take effect.
As of July 2, 2012, MLB has imposed new spending guidelines that will regulate the amount of money teams spend on international free agents. Until July 2, 2013, teams are allotted $2.9 million to spend on all international free agents without penalty. Any bonuses up to 5% over that total will be taxed at 75%. Bonuses exceeding that total by 5-10% will be taxed at 75% and the offending team won't be allowed to sign more than one player for more than $500,000 in the following signing period. 10-15% overage will be taxed at 100% and the team can't sign any player for more than $500,000 in 2013-2014. Teams that go over the cap by more than 15% will be taxed on the overage at 100% and will not be able to sign any player for more than $250,000 in 13-14. That'll teach those pesky kids to want the play ball in the states!
The Dodgers avoided this whole mess while signing Yasiel Puig to his massive deal, which was completed prior to the new policy taking effect. However, they did spend some money on other players:
The team signed four players for about $1 million on signing day, according to Dylan Hernandez of the LA Times. They also inked Dominican shortstop Cristian Gomez for an undisclosed amount according to Baseball America, though they speculate that it was in the low six figure range. To further complicate matters, the team signed Mexican League lefty Julio Urias for an undisclosed amount, though only a portion of that will count against the cap.
What does this matter? Well, I seriously doubt new ownership wants to clash with the league in its first year, if at all. And under the new rules, the Dodgers would have to make a fairly modest offer to Otani in order to stay within the $2.9 million pool.
The Dodgers have likely spent about $1.5 million that counts against the pool, and it could be closer to $2 million. That would leave about $1 million to $1.5 million for them to use on Otani, while going just barely over the cap and not suffering any of the major consequences. The biggest question is: will that be enough?
Consider this: the Rangers, who are generally very active on the international front, have expressed interest in signing Otani. They also haven't made much noise internationally during the current signing period. If they went bust and offered him $3 million, two to three times as much as the Dodgers could without going over the cap, should LA scoff at the rules and match?
It's a very complex issue, with no clear answer. On one hand, you have a chance at signing an elite prospect. On the other, you have a situation where the Dodgers would be relegated to their role under McCourt of having to go for quantity over quality.
With all that said, I think the Dodgers should do whatever it takes to get Otani signed. For three reasons.
The Dodgers have a rich history of signing Asian talent, from Hideo Nomo to Hiroki Kuroda. While the organization had been working under a constrained budget with McCourt as owner, the reigns come off with Guggenheim at the helm, thus allowing the club to go out and sign a premiere talent from the east.
2. Organizational Need
As I noted earlier in this article, the Dodgers' pitching depth in the farm has taken a hit. Getting a top notch, power arm in the system would do wonders to replace the losses of guys like Allen Webster and Nathan Eovaldi. And while Zach Lee has a great deal of potential, teams view him as more of a mid-rotation guy rather than a true ace.
The fans are happy with the direction of the club right now. Management has addressed the organization's talent both in the majors and minors. But one big deal or even one big year isn't enough. Ownership must be consistent in their dedication to improving the team through all available avenues. Continuing to infuse the system with young, high ceiling talent will improve the chance of perennial success.
So there you have it. My take on the next big thing. Drop by the message boards and give your two cents. I'd love to hear from you.
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