It’s less than 11 days until the start of spring training, and unless the Lotte Marines have decided to keep Roki Sasaki’s contract signing a secret–to prevent him from facing questions from the media–one assumes he has not come to terms for the 2024 season.
While the former is possible, given the controversial nature of his offseason, the latter makes sense from the Marines’s side if they feel they are caught between a Roki and a hard place.
Assume for an instant, that Roki Sasaki DOES have the Marines by the balls, with a contractual obligation that the club to post him at a time of his choosing, what would you do if you were the team?
If such an obligation does exist, the Marines situation would appear to be like that of Peter Lorre’s character Joel Cairo in his first encounter with Humphrey Bogart’s Sam Spade in “The Maltese Falcon.”
First, I’ll explain below why I firmly believe Sasaki is the one holding the posting-demand whip hand, and after that, how the Marines don’t have to just take it and like it, but can play hardball in a way no Japanese club has in ages.
Reasons to believe
While the evidence that Roki Sasaki has a contract requiring the Lotte Marines post him upon demand is unlikely ever to be made public since it would embarrass everyone involved, I believe such a contract exists for the following reasons:
- A U.S.-based player agent told MLB teams last year that Sasaki might be available after the 2024 season. Of course, a less scrupulous agentsmight do this even if there was no chance of Lotte posting him, but…
- …the U.S.-based agent who multiple MLB and Japan sources have said is handling Sasaki is not one of those unscrupulous agents. Rather, he is known to be forthright and above board, and not someone who would lie about a player being available when he knew it was next to impossible.
- There is virtually no reason for Lotte to post Sasaki this year before he turns 25-years-old, unless they are obligated to do so, because Lotte would not receive even 100 million yen in return for the 25 percent of his minor league contract and a signing bonus that is restricted by MLB’s CBA to a few million dollars.
- Thus, the only reason his U.S. agent could possibly believe the Marines might post Sasaki in 2024 would be if they had to. I believed this even before I heard of a domestic source who ostensibly spoke of such a deal to the Japanese media.
- Contractual obligations stating the conditions under which a team may reserve a player are common in NPB for imports, although rare for players acquired through the draft, and we have evidence of at least one contract requiring a team, the Yomiuri Giants, to post a player, pitcher Shun Yamaguchi, after they signed him as a free agent.
- By moving to MLB this year, Sasaki, would also delay the huge guaranteed payday he would get if he moved after turning 25. But it is possible that his priorities are different from yours and mine.
One MLB source told me recently he believes the Marines steamrolled Sasaki into backing down from his request to be posted last month. I am, however, not convinced Sasaki actually demanded to be posted then.
I am convinced, however, that if the Marines didn’t need to steamroll Sasaki to get him to back down from a 2023 posting, they are now doing so in an effort to keep him in Chiba through 2026.
In the normal world of Japanese baseball, players are required to beg their teams to post them, and if they don’t play for SoftBank, those pleas might be answered at some point.
Another of our normal expectations is that players eventually come to terms on contracts for the next season before spring training. The last NPB holdout I could find was in 2011, when Hanshin pitcher Yasutomo Kubo attended camp on his own dime until his agent negotiated a new deal on Feb. 15 that year.
Right now, if my assumption is true, Sasaki has the Marines backed into a corner in the same way Hideo Nomo backed the Kintetsu Buffaloes into one in the autumn of 1994.
When the Buffaloes, predictably declined Nomo’s extravagant demands, they allowed him to retire, as he wished, which permitted him under the rules at that time to play professionally abroad, which he did.
The Marines are likely in a similar bind, but it looks like they are making a smarter play than Kintetsu did.
If Sasaki has not signed in secret, he is now approaching holdout territory, making one suspect that the Marines are playing the only card they have to dissuade the pitcher from leaving before he turns 25 and costing them in the area of $30 million.
One possible explanation for the holdup in his contract is the Marines may be telling Sasaki that the only way he will play baseball for anyone in 2024 is by signing a contract promising not to demand to be posted until after he is 25 or under specific conditions agreed to by both parties.
If the two sides fail to come to terms, Sasaki could train to his heart’s content but could not play for anyone else all season, although he could still demand the Marines post him after the season ends.
My guess is that this where the Marines and Sasaki have been since the start of the year, and why we haven’t heard he’s signed. We’ll know more on Feb. 1 if there are stories about his paying his way to camp.
The Marines want him to pitch, to sell tickets, advertising, merchandise and concessions at their ballpark.
I expect the team would couch its approach as an appeal to his responsibility to the team: “Don’t you care about your team or your teammates? Think of the fans.” Such an appeal, would, of course, be the height of hypocrisy for an organization that tanked an entire season in 2009 effort to save a few million dollars.
I expect that the Marines will continue this appeal for as long as it takes since they have little to lose other than baseball games, and while the people in the organization sympathize with the Marines truly remarkable and loyal fans, $30 million in posting fees is a lot of money to walk away from.
But for Lotte the possibility of a huge potential posting fee after Sasaki turns 25 and the games he would win for them before that time comes is worth vastly more than the extra losses Lotte will amass without Sasaki pitching for them in 2024.