International walls of Jericho

Since two-thirds of the 30 major league teams are now trailing high school pitcher Roki Sasaki, who has repeatedly hit 100 mph, one has to wonder if he will be Japan’s first top high school prospect to move directly to the major leagues.

While that has never been an easy thing to try, it’s harder now because of Major League Baseball’s new rules. The same collective bargaining agreement with its players’ association that dictated foreign amateurs be denied fair market value for their services has an additional barrier to Japanese amateurs.

The registration barrier

Before an international amateur can sign with a big league club between July 2, 2019, to June 15, 2020, he needs to register with MLB by May 15. Which is a problem for Japanese high school students, because it comes right after the start of the school year on April 1.

According to the Japan Amateur Baseball Association, a high school player registering for the MLB international signing period would be prohibited from playing for his team. And since Sasaki aspires to take part in the national summer championship, whose finals are at historic Koshien Stadium, some consider that a deal breaker.

Another issue is the Tazawa Rule. Named after reliever Junichi Tazawa, the rule virtually bans amateur stars who sign directly with MLB teams from ever playing professionally in Japan or playing for the Japanese national team. The rule was a last-ditch attempt to bully Tazawa into not signing with the Boston Red Sox in December 2008 but has done nothing except generate ill will.

Last summer the registration issue caused a minor tempest within JABA because corporate league club Panasonic failed to notify JABA that pitcher Shumpei Yoshikawa had registered and had continued to play for his club.

Japanese officials didn’t become aware of this until Yoshikawa signed with the Arizona Diamondbacks immediately before he was scheduled to pitch for Japan in the Asian Games.

The posting-free agent barrier

If Sasaki declines to register as expected, he will have the option of taking part in Nippon Professional Baseball’s October amateur draft, with an eye to being posted at the age of 25. The problem with that is finding a team willing to do that.

Two clubs, the Pacific League’s SoftBank Hawks and the Central League’s Yomiuri Giants, have asserted their opposition to the posting system, and have never allowed a player to walk. Without being posted, he will have to accumulate nine years of service time before qualifying for international free agency.

The non-conformity barrier

In the past, teams have allowed players to leave via the posting system. Also, some players have announced they would not sign with certain clubs before the NPB draft. But as far as I’m aware, no player has made an early posting a condition of his signing. To do that, he might need the help of a good agent — something else NPB teams have never faced in dealing with drafted amateurs.

Of course, Sasaki could still go through the draft, and failing to get an offer he likes could register in May 2020 and sign with an MLB club a few months later.

Having registered with MLB, whatever NPB team holds his rights would be under more pressure to really negotiate instead of bluster or posture since NPB does not award compensation draft picks for players who refuse to sign.

This is the first of a two-part series on the Roki Sasaki dilemma.

Part 2, “Becoming a Modern Day Joshua” is HERE.

Jim Allen

sports editor for a wire service in Tokyo

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