Roki Sasaki held a press conference Saturday, less than a day after the Lotte Marines announced the 22-year-old pitcher had agreed to the terms of his 2024 contract and ending the possibility of his holding out – or the team locking him out – from the start of spring training.
People want to know is whether Sasaki has a contract able to force Lotte to post him before he turns 25, despite that being financially disadvantageous to both the pitcher and the team.
Of course, that question will NEVER be answered directly, since it could prove embarrassing to both the pitcher and the team. So instead we got excuses for why Sasaki’s contract took so long to be negotiated and a bullshit theory about why there were stories about his wanting to be posted.
The press conference taught us:
- Since Day 1, the team had negotiated with Sasaki through an agent, which makes the reports of Sasaki’s hardline stance in demanding to be posted in 2019 more believable.
- Sasaki declined to answer whether it was his ambition to be posted after the 2024 season, shortly after his 23rd birthday.
- Neither Sasaki nor Lotte want to address the issue of the pitcher’s actual progress toward a posting except to say it depends.
After the contract agreement prior to the start of camp and press conference we can now infer that a 2024 posting is still possible, but unlikely.
Asked when he wants to move to MLB, Sasaki said “I want to focus on this season with Lotte,” which is probably true but didn’t address the question.
Naoki Matsumoto, Lotte’s head of baseball operations, blamed stories on Sasaki’s demand to be posted on the mistaken belief by some in the media that “Sasaki had never broached the subject of wanting to go to MLB with the team before,” a response that set off the bullshit detector.
That’s because one reason those stories existed in the first place is because Sasaki’s U.S. agent had been telling MLB teams as early as November that he might be posted in 2024, in which case, it would have been impossible for anyone writing such articles to think the pitcher’s side had never mentioned being posted before.
Matsumoto denied Sasaki’s side even mentioned the posting system in their recently completed negotiations.
“There was nothing about posting,” he said. “It was about his dream of going to America, nothing about posting.”
No holdout or lockout means…
The delay in signing a contract may have been, as Sasaki said, because “(My agent and) the team went over many details meticulously until we arrived at a deal both sides were satisfied with,” or it could have been him holding out to get what he wants or the team locking him out to get what it wants. The fact that it didn’t go much further suggests a few possibilities.
- Sasaki was trying to wangle a 2024 posting for which he didn’t have air-tight leverage in the form of a clear contractual obligation on the part of the team to post him when he asks.
- Sasaki has said leverage, and has proved to the Marines that pressure him as they might, he would not relinquish those rights, forcing Lotte to make the best of a bad situation by giving in and ending its demand that he change his mind.
If Sasaki was trying to wangle a 2024 posting for which he didn’t have air-tight leverage, he might have delayed signing, but lacking a slam-dunk argument would mean he had little hope of getting the team to give in and forfeit 10s of millions of dollars in future posting fees. Had he stuck to his guns, the team would have bit the bullet and let him twist in the wind forever.
If, however, Sasaki absolutely has the right to demand a posting at his convenience, I find it hard to believe Lotte would give up trying to lean on him and give up those rights so easily instead of mounting a public pressure campaign against him.
That makes the first reason, that Sasaki doesn’t have an air-tight exit, the most reasonable at this stage, although we can’t rule out the fact that if Sasaki is holding the whip hand, the Marines’ have decided to put a good face on it, and make vague promises about “letting Sasaki go sometime in the future” even though it will be Sasaki and his side that decide when and how.
My best guess
I lean toward the idea that the Marines in 2019 agreed to a contract to post Sasaki, with language so ambiguous as to make each side think it has the right to dictate when said posting occurs.
This would be supported by a statement from Matsumoto, who said that their impasse was caused in part by mistakes made by the team. This could have led to a long standoff as both sides realized they needed to negotiate something more concrete, and could have provided Sasaki’s U.S. agency with enough belief in a possible 2024 posting to begin notifying MLB teams.
Whatever the case, I think we will learn more at the end of November, when the Marines either post Sasaki or they don’t.
The meaning of a 2024 posting
Matsumoto tried to establish that the team is 100 percent control of the timing of a Sasaki posting, saying it will be a mutual decision in the future, but without giving any concrete examples of what might persuade the team to let him go.
When asked if “being allowed to go to MLB in the future” meant Sasaki could go before he turns 25, Matsumoto said, “We talk about it every year. I can’t predict the timing. (His going before he turns 25) is something I absolutely do not know about.”
One supposes there are circumstances such as Sasaki becoming a historically dominant pitcher this season, leading Lotte to consecutive Japan Series championships, being Pacific League MVP and Sawamura Award winner for two years might sway the Marines to go against their best judgement and post him after the 2025 season, if he wants to go, but somehow I doubt it.
If Sasaki is posted before he turns 25, the only reason for it will be that Sasaki has an iron-clad contract that obligates the Marines to post him at the drop of his cap. Of course, that “decision” by the Marines will be like the Kintetsu Buffaloes’ “decision” in 1995 to “let” Hideo Nomo go after MLB had already declared him a free agent and the Japanese club had no say in the matter.
If Sasaki is posted this year, the Marines’ “official” explanation will be that the team is doing it to “help Sasaki achieve his dreams,” and preserve the fiction that it is in charge and not because an 18-year-old pitcher held a gun to their heads in 2019 and forced them to.