Roki Sasaki

Lotte’s problem children

On Thursday, Roki Sasaki became the lone Japanese player in Nippon Professional Baseball without a contract for 2024, a week away from becoming the first Feb. 1 holdout in 13 years.

That phase of the Sasaki drama ended Friday, when the Marines announced the two sides had come to an agreement on a contract. The holdout ended because one of the two sides realized they had nothing to gain by letting this dram continue, and we won’t know until the end of the season which side that is.

But first, a digression into how Sasaki’s situation compares to that of the Marines 1990s problem child, Hideki Irabu.

Hideki Irabu

Until Friday, Sasaki’s case was beginning to feel more and more like the turmoil that surrounded Irabu in 1996.

Irabu left Lotte in the middle of the season, effectively going on strike, until Lotte capitulated and sent him to the San Diego Padres after the season. Exactly how it happened is a little murky.

That summer, abrasive general manager Tatsuro Hirooka publicly berated Irabu’s desire to win. Irabu responded by walking out, and later demanded he be allowed to move to MLB. He returned to the team, led the PL in ERA for the second straight season.

It was an ugly summer of discontent in Chiba. Irabu finished the 1996 season with approximately seven years of service time in an 10 were needed to file for free agency. No posting system existed, because that was created as a result of issues of Irabu’s move to a team that had a working relationship with his Japanese club.

Irabu had nothing going for him in this fight except for his ability to withhold his services from the Marines, who alone were empowered to decide his fate.

Sasaki’s situation might be the exact opposite of Irabu’s or it may be more or less similar–different only in the fact that while Sasaki is known in baseball worldwide, he has done far less as a pro than Irabu did before he had his fill of Lotte.

When Sasaki signed with Lotte in 2019, we can all imagine it was on condition Lotte post him under certain circumstances. What we can’t possibly know. even after he signed, is what circumstances were and weren’t specified.

I see three possibilities:

  1. Lotte agreed to post Sasaki “whenever the hell he feels like it,” and believe the pitcher would act in the same way you or I would, stick around until he’s 25 than go for the big money as an MLB international free agent.
  2. Lotte agreed to post Sasaki at a time of his choosing, probably after he turns 25.
  3. Lotte gave Sasaki a verbal promise to post him under some conditions.

Let’s look at each of these.

1. Sasaki has a right to go NOW

The arguments against this supposition

A posting before the age of 25 would cost both Sasaki and the Marines many, many millions of dollars. Because of this and because it would be novel, there are people who assert that there is zero chance a powerful pro baseball organization would have agreed to such a thing.

One argument given in the media to support the “there is such an agreement” claim I find unconvincing.

That is that Sasaki was the last new player to sign a contract in the autumn of 2019, waiting until Nov. 30. But it wasn’t that egregious, and if Sasaki were indeed trying something so radical as to have a “post me when I want” agreement in writing, Nov. 30 seems like an unusually early date for the sides to have completed such difficult negotiations.

Signing a supplemental contract with an amateur that allowed him to post himself to MLB would be very bad for Nippon Professional Baseball as a whole.

I have reasons to suspect such an agreement might exist.

Why such an agreement might exist

Based on my knowledge of who it was telling MLB teams that Sasaki might be available, I have to believe this person was convinced there was some reason the Marines might let Sasaki go even at the cost of 10s of millions of dollars.

I also believe that if forced between having to choose signing Sasaki in 2019 and keeping him until he decided to leave, or not signing him at all, the Marines would choose the former.

If Sasaki didn’t sign with Lotte, he could have entered the draft the following year or signed with an MLB team, and Lotte would get squat, not even a compensation pick. That would have been good for NPB but bad for Lotte.

The “Lotte would never agree to such a bad deal” camp argues Lotte had “way more power” in that situation, but they also fail to grasp that as a well-known elite prospect, Sasaki had far less to lose by not signing than the Marines did.

Sasaki was going to find work where he wanted it, and Lotte was not going to get any compensation if he walked. Every other NPB team signed its top draft pick.

Lotte would be in a far weaker position now if they hadn’t signed Sasaki in 2019 than they will be if they let him walk after the 2024 season. Maybe I’m missing something in the naysayers’ logic, but the Marines have already made a ton of money off him that they wouldn’t have made if they had stood on principle four years ago and told him to fuck off.

These people seem to be looking at it through the lens of today: The Marines will be much better off from 2025 going forward than they will be if Sasaki leaves this year. In that respect ONLY, agreeing to a “post on demand” clause” would be a bad deal for Lotte.

But what that fails to recognize is that had Sasaki walked in 2019 because Lotte wouldn’t give him the written promise he demanded, Lotte’s total profits from drafting Sasaki would now and forever be zero.

What Lotte can do

If Sasaki has the right to leave in 2024 via a contractual obligation and is determined to go, there is very little Lotte can do to stop him. It is true that Lotte could refer to the Donald Trump playbook and try to obstruct the process , although Sasaki’s side, backed by Japan’s largest advertising and sports marketing company, could file for an injunction.

One person has argued that there is no way Sasaki could win this, but breach of contract is still fairly serious business, and Lotte breaking an agreement could lead to the team losing its rights to him, possibly making him a free agent and able to negotiate with MLB teams after the posting window closes.

Barring illegal maneuvering, the Marines’ best option would be to not permit Sasaki to play in 2024 until he agrees to forgo his desire to be posted before he is 25, and would likely result in a long holdout, until the team decided it had more to lose than Sasaki did.

2. Right or no right, Roki wants out

This is the most common supposition, that Sasaki has an agreement that allows him to leave, most likely after he becomes eligible to be treated as an international free agent, but that he is unwilling to wait.

In this situation, Sasaki and his network of backers will attempt to twist the team’s arm until it relents. In this case, Sasaki’s only option would be to withhold his services by not signing his contract.

This is a very rough road, since Sasaki’s ability to get posted will then depend on the agreement he signed with team as a 19-year-old. If it includes language that requires him to be treated by MLB teams as an international free agent, then he can’t simply sit out and wait till he’s 25.

Under those conditions, the cost to the Marines of his not playing in 2024, would be far less than the cost to Sasaki. A season-long holdout would mean Sasaki would not be able to move until he’s 26 in 2027.

3. But you promised.

This is the third option, that Lotte made a verbal promise to let Sasaki leave whenever he liked, and the issue is now over the Marines failure to keep their promise.

I’ve been involved in the labor movement in Japan since 1999 and can assert that a company’s verbal promise to an employee is a guarantee in Japan–a guarantee that the employer will break it at its convenience.

This is not over

The lack of a prolonged holdout does not eliminate the possibility that Sasaki will be posted this year against Lotte’s wishes. It only means that whatever circumstances are spelled out in his agreement with the team, the side that had little hope of benefitting from his not signing has figured that out.

We probably won’t know the truth until the end of the season, when he is or isn’t posted. If he isn’t posted, then we can assume the Marines have no contractual obligation to do so.

If Sasaki is posted, the Marines will say, “We want to reward his great season with a ticket to MLB” or “We want him to fulfill his ambitions.” Both will be lies, and will indicate that Lotte has only posted him because the team agreed to do so in 2019.

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