Japanese teams depend on foreign talent to make a larger impact in pennant races, but their ability to secure players of quality is decreasing as MLB tightens the screws on its talent markets, executives with three different NPB teams said this past week at the winter meetings in Las Vegas.
“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.” — agent Scott Boras
“It is getting harder and harder to sign good talent,” a Central League club’s international director said Wednesday.
On another front, agent Scott Boras said Japanese teams should look at the opportunity of signing North American amateurs — whose negotiating power has been sharply curtailed by the signing pool bonus rules imposed by MLB’s collective bargaining agreement with its unions. Those rules limit the amount teams can spend on amateurs.
In the past, a lot of top targets for NPB clubs were former major league regulars looking to extend their careers in Japan before hanging up their spikes. Japan was, for many, the end of the road. This spring, a person on Twitter complained about Shohei Ohtani’s hype, saying he was coming out of a Four-A-level league.
What people often don’t get is that Japan is not a “level.” It exists in a different kind of baseball dimension. Because Japanese players stay in the system, and don’t automatically move up if they succeed, a lot of players here are among the world’s elite. But because the pro ranks are thinner, some NPB regulars would struggle to get out of Double-A ball or succeed in Triple-A.
The average NPB attendance last year was 29,779. The pennant races and championships are real. The wins and losses extremely meaningful. The competition could be fiercer, because as Jim Small, MLB’s vice president for Asia and a longtime fan of Japanese baseball, said, Japan’s game is essentially closed. Teams can only field four foreign-registered players in a game. (Players are registered as foreigners if they are not Japanese citizens, and did not play their amateur ball in Japan). This means that one of NPB’s de facto missions is to be a jobs program for Japanese, and puts another hurdle in the way of growth.
Still, the four-foreign-player limit now only applies to the first team. Twenty years ago, it was two per organization. The increased number of players coming out of MLB and the U.S. minors, Taiwan and Korea has made Japan’s game better. And by getting better, it has changed NPB from a destination of last resort to a destination of choice.
Players over 25 with an uncertain future in MLB have been lining up to come. And because the game is different, NPB demands different adjustments to their skill sets or attitudes, but also gives players a better chance to get regular playing time in pressure situations that their uncertain MLB status does not.
As a result, many of those who come to Japan and get better. Financially, it’s also a huge deal. A player who embraces NPB and improves, can make a lot of money and provide financial security for their families.
But MLB’s penny-pinching mentality–the one that denies minor leaguers subsistence wages, throws willing interns and new hires into a pit and gives living wages to the sole survivors–is now impacting the flow of talent to Japan NPB executives said in Las Vegas.
Instead of letting a big hitting 27-year-old minor leaguer go in exchange for a lump sum from an NPB team, MLB clubs are now hanging on to guys like that with GI Joe Kung Fu grips. Because they are cheap insurance. If the guy is needed as a fill in with the big club, he’ll be paid an MLB minimum wage prorated to days on the roster. Guys who could be productive players and who would be available to enrich themselves and the fans of other countries, are more and more often being kept in cold storage like frozen beef.
Because of its independence, NPB also has an opportunity to benefit from MLB’s efforts to put a damper on its talent markets. Agents for elite amateur players from North America have proposed two-year deals with NPB clubs, allowing them to earn more at an entry level and raise their profile before re-entering MLB’s amateur draft.
“You’d like to see (NPB) greater involved than what it is,” agent Scott Boras said. “I think it’s very wise for the Japanese teams to take a look at amateurs. I think that when they take a look at it and see the value of the player going forward, they’ll take a good look at it.”