No decision for Sasaki

Roki Sasaki announced Wednesday that he has registered for Nippon Professional Baseball’s amateur draft, displaying no interest in being a trailblazer in the ways of how amateur players deal with NPB teams.

The Ofunato High School pitcher was clocked (by one Chunichi Dragons scout) at 163 kph in April at a tryout camp for prospective national Under-18 players. The other scouts in attendance had him at 161, which is still just over 100 mph. He hit just under 100 mph in August’s Iwate-prefectural tournament.

Over a third of MLB’s 30 teams have been following the lanky right-hander with interest in hopes perhaps that he would bypass the NPB draft and sign directly with an MLB team in the 2020-2021 international signing window starting next June.

“I can’t even think of the major leagues now,” Sasaki said. “I want to do my best in Japan first.”

Because of his talent, Sasaki could have told the 80 or so members of the media what NPB teams were most frightened of: that he would only sign with a team that was willing to post him or that whoever drafted him would have to speak to his agent.

Those things could still come to pass, but don’t hold your breath. Japanese youth baseball teaches a lot of things that are not very useful, but it also teaches humility. When you go to the baseball ground, players doff their caps to every adult they pass and greet them.

It would have been a huge shock for Sasaki–even with a former pro ballplayer as his high school manager–to break with that tradition of subservience by assuming he had any right to sit at the same table with the teams that are now lining up to exploit him.

“There are 12 (Japanese) teams, and I desire to do my best wherever I go,” the 1.90-meter Sasaki said. “I want to become the kind of player who inspires children to dream and hope.”

That’s the script he’s been learning since he was a boy.

If he does sign with the Hawks or the Giants, he has to know what Koji Uehara didn’t realize when he turned pro with Yomiuri after turning down a huge offer from the Angels.

“Nine years (to free agency) is an awfully long time,” he said 10 years ago in an interview with the Daily Yomiuri. “But when you’re young you don’t think about that. You only think about the next step.”

One would hope that before he signs he gets a chance to sit down and chat with star Hawks pitcher Kodai Senga. One of Japan’s premier pitchers for the past four years, Senga is now 26. Because he was shuttled in and out of the Hawks roster for four years, he has only amassed five years of service time, although he turned pro out of high school.

At this pace, Senga will be eligible to file for international free agency after the 2023 season. He has asked SoftBank to post him and they’ve said, “We appreciate your concern, but we own you.”

Ideally, Sasaki would sign with a club that would promise to post him when he’s 25, so he can learn how to pitch in an extremely competitive environment, enter MLB as an international professional free agent, and reap his club a rich reward.

If he signs with the Hawks or Giants it will be another case of a pitcher spinning his gears, waiting for a chance that won’t come until he’s too old to learn some of the lessons he needs to realize his maximum potential. There’s no place better in the world to learn how to pitch than Japan, but there are things you can’t learn here.

Jim Allen

sports editor for a wire service in Tokyo

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