After their second straight Japan Series 4-0 sweep at the hands of the SoftBank Hawks, no one was surprised when the Yomiuri Giants’ public response to their failure was to claim the rules put them at a disadvantage. Even though it’s an old story for the Giants, this new one comes with a hidden twist and the possibility of the organization actually doing some good.
The irony of Yomiuri blaming a system that it has managed and contorted to suit the best interests of its team alone at the expense of its other 11 business partners was not lost on anyone.
When the Pacific League jumped on the Olympic baseball bandwagon in 2000 by sending stars and not playing on national team game days, Tsuneo Watanabe, the president of Yomiuri publicly threatened to kick the six PL teams out for breaking NPB rules.
Four years later, when Yomiuri became an Olympic sponsor and pushed “Mr. Giants” Shigeo Nagashima to manage the team, Yomiuri became was the loudest advocate for the Athens Olympics’ baseball tournament.
Yomiuri and its Central League minions have done this over and over, denigrating every Pacific League innovation, until they worked. Every successful PL policy has gone from being the target of CL ridicule to being coopted by the CL with a new name slapped on it.
This is why Japan’s postseason games between the regular season and the Japan Series are not called playoffs because the Climax Series was based on the PL playoffs. The CL owners made a few superficial changes and slapped a new name on it, although a decidedly stupid one, in the hope people would look see them as something more than whiny unimaginative imitators.
In the past, Yomiuri responded to its team’s failure to dominate by changing the rules.
- 1934: Blackmailed amateur pitcher Victor Starffin into joining Yomiuri’s new pro team by using the owner’s influence to get the pitcher’s father off a murder rap.
- 1948: Tampered with Hawks ace Takehiko Bessho to force Nankai to let him go to the Giants.
- 1978: Failed to create a loophole that allowed Giants to sign amateur pitcher Suguru Egawa. When that didn’t fly, they forced NPB to accept a trade that sent the player to the Giants with pitcher Shigeru Kobayashi.
- 1993: threatened to quit Nippon Professional Baseball if the other 11 owners didn’t go along with a free agency system that would let the Giants scoop up Japan’s top veteran players.
- 2021: Having failed to win a Japan Championship for a franchise-record eight years running, the Giants suddenly realized that the PL’s designated hitter rule, adopted in 1975, gives that league an unfair advantage.
Of course, nobody is fooled by this Yomiuri PR move, since nobody thinks the organization cares one bit about the quality of pro baseball beyond that of players wearing Giants uniforms.
The Giants’ bullying and hypocrisy are normal. What is new is the stuff the Giants aren’t talking about, a renewed effort to build a talent base from the ground up, through the developmental roster.
A review of the developmental system
The first time I heard of the developmental “ikusei” system was a CL official complaining that it was just another Yomiuri scheme to hoard talent to keep it away from other clubs.
Yet, the Giants were one of the first two teams to grasp the possibility of the developmental draft. I don’t profess to know much of this story, but Giants manager Tatsunori Hara had a good relationship with Lotte Marines manager Bobby Valentine, who was that PL club’s de facto GM from 2006 to 2008.
Valentine was an advocate of broader minor league development and after the Rakuten Eagles made the minor Eastern League a seven-team circuit, the Giants and Marines collaborated on a plan to get extra games between the teams’ youngest players and the EL team without an opponent for a few days.
After drafting more developmental players than the rest of the PL combined between 2005 and 2009, Lotte’s enthusiasm for developmental players waned after Valentine was ousted in the team’s infamous 2009 coup. The small amounts paid out in developmental contracts mean few opportunities for front-office grift and kickbacks that once were common in front offices.
It’s probably no surprise that the team that became the new champions of developmental deals started doing so in 2010. The winter before, SoftBank cleaned its front office, replacing the old-school grifters and hangers on with a more dedicated group, led at first by GM Itaru Kobayashi. After drafting no developmental players in 2009, the Hawks began grabbing five or more every year.
Signing lots of developmental players itself is no sign of a well-run organization, but when a team drastically changes the number of players it takes after the regular draft ends, it may signal a policy change.
What this has to do with the Giants
I didn’t notice it until doing this year’s rosters, but Yomiuri drafted 20 players in the regular and developmental drafts, almost a sixth of the 182 signed by all 12 teams combined. Of those, the Giants set an NPB record with 12 developmental picks.
With major league penny-pinching reaching new heights, people have for the past three years talked about when Japanese teams might take advantage of the situation. Until now, MLB has depended on Japan’s foreign player limits to prevent NPB teams from dipping into the majors domestic and amateur talent pool.
The Hawks, and more recently, the Chunichi Dragons, have been able to profit from some of Cuba’s impressive talent, but it took the signing of American pitcher Carter Stewart Jr in 2019 to crack open a door that MLB had expected would stay shut forever.
This past week, the Giants opened that door a little further by signing two 16-year-old Dominican prospects, outfielder Julian Tima and shortstop Jose De la Cruz to developmental deals.
Although there is no minor league free agency in Japan and players can only become free agents through first-team service time, developmental players can only be reserved for three years, by which time Yomiuri will have to either sign them to their 70-man roster or release them on Nov. 31, 2023.
A full-count story said the Giants see the pair as long-term investments and are preparing a support program that will include Japanese language instruction. Although the Giants have been big believers in mass farming of cheap amateur talent, the idea that 16-year-old imports were worth a longterm investment and a new setup is noteworthy.
If the Dominican amateur talent stream becomes a river for Yomiuri, it would be no surprise if the team that once boasted its pure Japanese lineup despite its best star, Sadaharu Oh, being a foreign national suddenly decided the four-player foreign limit was antithetical to the spirit of Japanese baseball and needed to go.
If that happens, it is easy to see how the Giants might find a way to combine their old trick, changing rules to suit their needs, with their new-found trick of mining foreign talent and, for once actually try to make the entire pro game better.
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