MLB.com Columnist

Jon Paul Morosi

Ohtani returns to pitching, but will he join MLB?

Japanese pitching/hitting star might be available for 2018 season

Ohtani returns to pitching, but will he join MLB?

Japanese sensation Shohei Ohtani has thrown two recent bullpen sessions, his team, the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters, confirmed this week to MLB.com. The workouts were described as low intensity, with the catcher standing up rather than in a crouch.

Meanwhile, uncertainty surrounds two questions of great interest to Major League Baseball clubs.

• When will Ohtani pitch again in a top-level Nippon Professional Baseball game, something he's done only once this season?

• Does Ohtani still intend to come to Major League Baseball in 2018, despite an injury-plagued year for him and disappointing season for the Fighters?

Ohtani, who has expressed interest in pitching and hitting in Major League Baseball, has resumed his usual role as the Fighters' designated hitter and cleanup batter, even as there's no timetable for him to return to the mound. He went 2-for-4 with an RBI in the Fighters' 4-3 loss to the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles on Thursday. Ohtani has an .881 OPS in 32 games this season, down from 1.004 last year.

Ohtani missed the World Baseball Classic with an ankle injury and suffered a thigh injury early in the regular season. He allowed four earned runs in 1 1/3 innings in his lone pitching appearance with the Fighters this year, but the team says he's not bothered by injuries any longer.

Ohtani, 23, doesn't meet MLB's definition of a foreign professional under the Collective Bargaining Agreement, since he's not 25 years old with six years of service in a recognized foreign league. As such, he'll be subject to international amateur spending limits if he moves from NPB to MLB this winter, limiting the amount an MLB team must invest in order to acquire him.

The MLB team would pay the Fighters a release fee -- likely the maximum of $20 million -- and then a signing bonus to Ohtani. The bonus must fit under a hard cap, typically less than $6 million per team, although it can increase through the acquisition of additional slot allocations in deals with other teams.

Ohtani told MLB Network earlier this year that the Rangers, Dodgers and Giants were the teams that pursued him most aggressively when he was 18 years old, before he decided to begin his pro career in Japan rather than jump straight to MLB.

The Rangers, Yankees, Red Sox, Dodgers, Blue Jays, Mets, Brewers, Phillies, Braves and Twins have acquired additional international signing bonus money in trades since July 1 -- theoretically improving their chances of pursuing a star player. But among that group, the Dodgers and Braves are prohibited from signing international amateurs for more than $300,000 until July 2, 2018, because of previous spending in excess of assigned bonus pools.

The Cubs, White Sox, Reds, Astros, Royals, Athletics, Cardinals, Padres, Giants and Nationals are similarly restricted, one source confirmed to MLB.com.

The Fighters are the reigning Japan Series champions, but they will miss the playoffs altogether in 2017; they are fifth in the Pacific League standings with a 34-65 record. And the team's poor performance could influence Ohtani's decision.

Jason Coskrey of the Japan Times, who was among the first to report the resumption of Ohtani's bullpen sessions, has pointed out that prominent players almost always make the transition from NPB to MLB after strong seasons by their Japanese clubs. According to Coskrey's research, every successful posting transaction since 2006 has come from a team that finished in third place or better, with the exception of Kenta Maeda, when the Hiroshima Toyo Carp were coming off a fourth-place finish.

"Does [Ohtani] now feel he owes his team, the Fighters, [after] having him miss pitching for almost the entire season?" said Ira Stevens, managing director and founder of the Japanese scouting service ScoutDragon. "This is known as giri, which means 'obligation' or 'duty.' [Ohtani] might feel one more year of giri, to not only the Fighters but also to the fans."

Jon Paul Morosi is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.