NPB toys with expansion

Nippon Professional Baseball, or rather the 12 companies who control its baseball teams, approved a pair of new minor league teams for 2024 on Friday, Shizuoka’s Hayate 223, and Albirex Niigata. Atsushi Ihara, the NPB’s secretary general, said the teams would invigorate the game, while definitely not being a precursor to major league expansion.

On this week’s Japan Baseball Weekly Podcast, recorded Saturday, John E. Gibson said those two were mutually exclusive, but I’m not so sure. We won’t have any idea of where it might go until we learn how the two teams will fit into the existing system.

Will they have access to the NPB draft? Will their players be on standard NPB contracts? Will they actually be precursors to expansion? Let’s talk about those possibilities, by starting with the whole topic of expansion.

Of the 12 Japanese teams, only one, the SoftBank Hawks, has any interest in doing the work needed to build Japanese pro baseball into an elite competition that might rival or surpass what MLB puts on the field.

The Yomiuri Giants, whose mission is to win every year’s Japan championship, used to be like that, and would be on board with making NPB the world’s best baseball if there were safeguards in place to guarantee Yomiuri’s status as the greatest among equals. Without those safeguards, Yomiuri is content to be a big fish in a small pond.

This is an important consideration because many changes could be adopted that would be good for the long-term health and success of Japanese pro baseball’s business, but it would require a new vision, and 11 of NPB’s 12 parent companies are quite content with the current one, where the limit on 12 teams means that the advertising benefits that accrue to their companies will not be further diluted by expansion.

What’s best for baseball

All 12 teams are in it for the benefits of their parent companies being in the news nearly every day, while running tax-deductible operating losses. From their perspective, what is best for baseball is to be left the fuck alone.

That’s why in 2004 and 2005, the owners wanted absolutely nothing to do with a World Baseball Classic, and it took lobbying by influential voices such as Sadaharu Oh’s to help persuade them to take part at all.

“The WBC was important to grow baseball here and around the world,” Oh said after he chaired the Sawamura Award Committee in 2017. “Japan’s teams are run by business people. They are in the baseball business, but more than anything they are business people and the idea of doing what’s good for baseball as a whole, but something that might not help their businesses was not easy for them to grasp. But they did come around.”

 Oh paid for his advocacy by having to manage Japan’s first WBC team in 2006, which meant leaving his Hawks in the hands of his head coach for the month leading into the season.

“I was not in a position to say ‘No’ when they asked,” he said.

Oh has also been an advocate of major league expansion, championing the idea of late former prime minister Shinzo Abe, who wanted, for the good of the economy, four more NPB teams. But that is really the last thing Japan’s owners want to hear, because they like things the way they are.

The draft and beyond

The ideal way to bring the two new teams into the fold would be to give them the same access to talent through the draft that the existing 12 NPB teams have. But if the owners will do everything in their power to defeat expansion, then there is no reason for the two new teams to do anything except give their own minor leaguers more playing opponents and more game time.

If the new teams were to have access to the draft and were able to get some of Japan’s top amateur talent, they could develop those players to sell tickets and merchandise, and sell or trade them to other teams. This is the way minor league teams operated before Branch Rickey, who –when he ran the St. Louis Cardinals – began the destruction of America’s independent minor leagues by buying up teams and turning them into player-development factories.

It is possible that even without a draft or NPB contracts for their players, that these teams could lead to expansion, not because the owners want it, but because the public wants it.

In 2004, when fans and players blocked the owners’ plans to contract pro baseball, the owners learned that what they say and what they want is not necessarily the way things go. The owners would need convincing, but it’s not an absolute impossibility.

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