Shohei Ohtani was the most sought-after free agent in all of baseball this off-season. Based on his career so far in his native Japan, the 23-year-old star, who signed on Friday with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, may turn out to be the first player since Babe Ruth who can both pitch and hit at a major-league level—a possibility that led Robert O’Connell to write in The Atlantic that Ohtani might be revolutionary not for his new team, but for baseball as a sport.
Ohtani is so promising that scouts estimate he would be worth more than $200 million, cumulatively, between now and the time he’s 30. The Angels, though, signed Ohtani at a bargain rate—the league-minimum salary of $545,000 per year, plus a one-time signing bonus of $2.3 million. If he’s such a valuable player, why is he making the lowest the league is allowed to pay?
Under Major League Baseball’s collective-bargaining agreement, or CBA, an incoming international player under the age of 25 like Ohtani can only sign for the league minimum salary; he’s now committed to the Angels for six years at that rate (unless they trade him, a decision in which he will have no say). Until this year, the CBA permitted teams to offer large signing bonuses that would make up at least part of the difference between a player’s salary and his actual value. Unfortunately for Ohtani, though, a provision in the new CBA ratified earlier this year severely limited those signing bonuses for international players; the $2.3 million the Angels offered was among the largest put forward by any team. (For added irony, the Angels will be paying Ohtani’s former team in Japan, the Nippon Ham Fighters, $20 million just for allowing him play in the U.S.)