Roki Sasaki and the posting conundrum

A single unbylined story on the Sponichi Annex website this week said phenomenal 21-year-old right-hander Roki Sasaki, Japan’s youngest perfect-game pitcher, has asked the Lotte Marines of Japan’s Pacific League to post him this month so he can play in MLB next season.

This news, attributed to “multiple sources at last week’s MLB winter meetings in Nashville, Tennessee,” set off a whirlwind of speculation about whether this would happen, with everyone and their sister speculating it could never happen before Sasaki turns 25 because his club “would not allow it.”

There are 339 million potential reasons to think Sasaki won’t be posted before he turns 25, when he’ll be able to negotiate as what MLB calls an “international free agent.” But those who believe it can’t happen because Lotte can simply refuse to let him go, don’t understand how Japanese contracts work, how they can differ in mind-boggling ways from those in MLB, and how Japan’s draft system gives top amateurs leverage they wouldn’t have in the States.

As to why he would want to, that is a question about values, and in a world where monetary figures are believed to trump everything else, Roki Sasaki might have a surprise for you.

Before the story came out, MLB sources had been telling me they expected Sasaki to be posted next year, which would not alleviate the monetary loss he and the Marines would suffer, or the control over his career he would surrender. Because of that, my take has been that whoever will be representing Sasaki in his future negotiations with MLB teams is eager to establish a market for Japan’s hardest-thrower.

Teams had been telling me two years ago that Masataka Yoshida would be posted last year, and I found out later that it was because his agent was trying to build a market for his client in advance.

My guess is that whoever wrote the Sponichi article listened to people who were not altogether clear about what the agent had been telling their teams, and eager to be first on the story, reported that Sasaki would be posted not long after Shohei Ohtani landed in Toronto on a private jet.

What you need to know

The finances

MLB’s current labor agreement hideously curtails the bargaining power of young players, making a move by Sasaki a costly one. Players entering MLB before the age of 25 and without six professional seasons to enter on amateur contracts and limits their signing bonuses to MLB’s version of a fantasy baseball draft – its signing bonus pools.

A move now could cost Sasaki as much as $300 million and the Marines in the neighborhood of $39 million in posting fees.

While the 25-year-old Yoshinobu Yamamoto’s first MLB contract this winter will likely earn him in the area of $300 million with no restrictions on signing bonuses, Sasaki leaving before the age of 25 would be in the same boat as Shohei Ohtani was when he signed with the Los Angeles in December 2017.

After being paid a reported 275 million yen from the Nippon Ham Fighters for the 2017 season, then worth $2.4 million, Ohtani took a pay cut to play in MLB as a 23-yea-old. He received a $2,315,000 signing bonus and a minor league salary, upgraded to the MLB minimum of $545,000 on Opening Day. For three years, he was subject to the MLB minimums before he began earning record contracts for arbitration-eligible players from Year 4.

If he waits until he’s 25, Sasaki can cut a deal to his liking, and will be a free agent upon conclusion of said contract, instead of waiting at least six more seasons before again having the same leverage.

Why people think it CAN’T happen

In order for a player to move to MLB from Japan via the posting agreement, his team has to post him, and not all teams do that. In this case, Lotte is in a different boat than the Fighters were in 2017. When Ohtani was posted, the Fighters were guaranteed the same $20 million maximum transfer fee Japanese teams had been able to ask for since 2013 – when MLB had last changed the system to prevent the Rakuten Eagles from raking in $100 million or more from Masahiro Tanaka’s impending move.

Until 2012, players being posted were only allowed to negotiate with the team that offered the highest sealed bid for his transfer fee. This had allowed the Seibu Lions and Fighters to take in over $50 million, respectively, for Daisuke Matsuzaka in 2006, and Yu Darvish in 2011.

From December 2017, the rules were changed, with Japanese teams getting a fee equal to:

  • 20 percent of the first $25 million
  • 17.5 percent of the second $25 million
  • 15 percent of the rest.

A $300 million contract for Sasaki would net Lotte $40,625,000, while a minor league contract would earn Lotte a fee worth one quarter of say a $3,500,000 signing bonus and a salary of say $20,000 or as much as around $880,000 for one of the top players in Japan.

If given the choice, the Marines would never post Sasaki, leading people to think that it couldn’t happen because a team’s permission is required.

But what if Lotte has no choice?

Japanese contracts and the draft

Rules governing contracts in Japanese pro baseball are similar to but not identical to those in MLB. First of all, NPB only deals with one-year contracts. These are submitted to NPB when players sign them. Multiyear contracts do exist, but they exist as secret private supplemental contracts, that can include virtually everything under the sun.

These contracts are the reason why most import players seem to be governed by different rules, such as the one that requires every first-year player in NPB to have nine years of service time before becoming a free agent. Import players come to Japan on one- or two-year contracts and then easily move off to greener pastures with teams who pay them more.

It’s not that the free agent rules don’t apply to imports, but rather that their agents negotiate clauses in their supplemental contracts that specify the conditions under which the players can earn their release and become free agents. Japanese players have the same rights to negotiate such contracts.

In 2019, Shun Yamaguchi became the first player to be posted by the Yomiuri Giants, a team that had railed against the posting system and had stubbornly refused to post any of its players, until whoever negotiated Yamaguchi’s contract when he joined Yomiuri as a free agent, accepted a clause that required the club post him if he wanted. It was such a delicate issue that some of the team’s most senior executives were unaware of it.

Amateurs, too, have the right to negotiate anything they like, according to the Japan Professional Baseball Players Association, provided the agreement doesn’t violate NPB rules. Players can’t insist on a transfer to a specific NPB team or become owners or be rented out, but that’s about it.

There is no rule stopping a player, such as Roki Sasaki, from telling the team that secures his rights in the draft that he’ll only sign if they agree to post him at any time he tells them. Some people seemed incredulous when this possibility was raised, because they couldn’t fathom why a team would agree to such a thing.

But think about it.

Lotte had earned the biggest prize on draft day by pulling the winning lot from a box and had a year to sign Sasaki, a kid whose fastball had been clocked at over 100 mph in high school. If Sasaki was willing to not play baseball for a year, rather than accept a contract without such a clause, he would be able to reenter the draft the following year, while Lotte would: 1) not be able to sign him for at least a year, and 2) would have completely wasted their first-round pick, too, because NPB does not give compensation picks for teams failing to sign players they hold the rights to.

While a number of clubs have sought to add compensation picks to Japan’s draft, the most influential team, the Yomiuri Giants, have steadfastly refused in order to keep other teams from poaching players in the draft who want to play for Yomiuri. Outfielder Hisayoshi Chono and pitchers Tetsuya Utsumi and Tomoyuki Sugano each did this when other clubs selected them in the draft so that they could eventually play for Yomiuri.

The rule is good for the Giants but it gives top-amateurs unintended leverage in their negotiations, and allows an amateur of high standing to have his way in negotiations or force the team to get nothing for their draft pick.

If Sasaki is posted this week or next year, it will be because Lotte gave in to his demands when signing him and prayed to God he wouldn’t use that right before he was 25-years old.

If he is posted early, however, we will hear Lotte talking about how much they support him moving forward in his career and how they are letting him move for the good of baseball, but the real reason will be because Sasaki was able to use the leverage Japan’s system gives him to do what he wants.

Why would he want to go?

MLB’s new CBA was announced just before the 2016 winter meetings in Washington. It raised the age at which an international professional could negotiate as a free agent to 25, causing agent Scott Boras to predict that it would keep Ohtani from coming to MLB until 2020, because that’s where the money would be.

Man, do I love it when Scott Boras is wrong. And if Boras is Sasaki’s agent, as I suspect, and Sasaki does have the power to demand to be posted, then Boras has probably bent the youngster’s ear trying to dissuade him from going until he can get a big pay day.

If Sasaki does decide to go early, it will be because his goal is to make the most of his life in baseball. This may not make sense to Boras, but for someone like Sasaki, whose understanding that life is precious is keener than most, having lost his father and two grandparents in the March 2011 tsunami that ravaged northeastern Japan’s Pacific Coast, it does make sense.

Sasaki probably figures that if his Iwate Prefecture homeboy Shohei Ohtani can survive on $2 million a year, with the Dodgers, then he can get by on a quarter of that.

So, yes. It’s unlikely that Sasaki will go this year or next, but if he does, I wish him all the power and good luck in the world.

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2 thoughts on “Roki Sasaki and the posting conundrum”

  1. Article mentions “25 year old Masahiro Yamamoto” but the Pitcher I believe is meant to be Yoshinobu Yamamoto

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