Dipping into U.S. amateur market

Ken Rosenthal of the Athletic tweeted Tuesday that the SoftBank Hawks had reached an agreement with American junior college pitcher Carter Stewart, a report the Hawks are refusing to comment on.

As reported in December from the winter meetings, the well-financed Hawks are in a good position to raid top amateur talent from the United States now that MLB has instituted hard caps on money paid to amateurs. While Japanese teams are likewise restricted in how much they can offer amateurs acquired in Nippon Professional Baseball’s amateur draft, there are no limits on amounts spent on foreign players, professional or otherwise.

Stewart, whom the Atlanta Braves drafted out of high school in the first round of MLB’s 2018 June draft, did not sign with Atlanta after the club discovered medical concerns with the pitcher’s right wrist and made him an offer about half of the $4.5 million he was seeking according to MLB.com’s Mark Bowman.

In December, I asked Stewart’s agent, Scott Boras about whether or not NPB could exploit the current situation, and not surprisingly, he was all for it

“You’d like to see (NPB) greater involved than what it is. I think it’s very wise for the Japanese teams to take a look at amateurs.”

Carter Stewart’s agent Scott Bora in December at the baseball winter meetings.

MLB agents have said it would be impossible for an American player to evade the draft, play in Japan and enter the majors through the posting system in place with NPB, but that might be tested should the player in question establish Japanese residence. Mind you, MLB would fight long and hard to prevent amateurs from subverting the establishment’s “right” to use draft signing pools to subvert amateurs’ rights to fair value for their labor.

Assuming that a residence loophole is possible, that leaves two ways an elite U.S. amateur might sign with a Japanese club.

  1. Evade the draft (above) and play in Japan until he is eligible for international free agency.
  2. Play for a year or two and establish himself as an elite player in order to re-enter the MLB draft.

NPB International directors spoken to recently said they are frequently contacted by agents of amateur players who would like their clients to play in Japan in order to pursue the second goal. If Stewart does agree to join the Hawks, that would likely be the target course — and would allow the Hawks to test the waters in signing U.S. amateur talent for the future.

Because the Hawks have stated their opposition to the posting system, it is unlikely they would post a U.S. player, assuming a residence loophole could be established. Were they to make an exception for an American 25-year-old and post him, it would be much harder for the Hawks to deny their domestic players the same opportunity.

The problem, however, is not just about the rules. If a Japanese team is going to shell out money to a player, they want something in return other than his agent’s gratitude. They’ll want a club option that lets them keep him if he is productive, and that would negate the agent’s purpose of using Japan as an easy springboard for the draft.

Jim Allen

sports editor for a wire service in Tokyo

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