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NPB 2020 6-29 NEWS

Union: You want cuts? show us your books

The executive director of the Japanese Professional Baseball Players Association said Monday he expected tough salary negotiations in the autumn after this year’s games have been reduced and played behind closed doors but said teams would have to be open about their losses if they want concessions.

Speaking as the union announced that the average salary of Japan’s 727 domestically registered players surpassed 40 million yen ($360,000) for the first time, Mori said according to the Nikkan Sports, that the players side needed to be taken into consideration.

“Anyone can tell that profits are going to be down, but a lot of players have essentially been in camp all this time,” Mori said. “I want negotiations in good faith with the teams revealing their profit statements.”

Unlike in the majors, Nippon Professional Baseball does not have a collective bargaining agreement. Rather, Japanese law gives the players association the right to negotiate all changes to the working situation. Imported players do not typically join the union.

For that reason, the teams are likely to take Mori’s advice with a grain of sand, since the union has zero role to play in individual salary negotiations.

The figures are for the numbers stated on each individual player’s uniform player contract and would not include any additional revenues stipulated in the supplemental contracts most players agree to with their teams.

The Pacific League’s SoftBank Hawks were the biggest spenders for the first time in two years at an average of 71.1 million yen, while the PL’s Lotte Marines were at the bottom at 30.4 million yen, roughly 30,000 yen ($270) lower than last-years 12th-placed club, the PL’s Orix Buffaloes. The Rakuten Eagles, who were formed in 2005, moved into third place in the domestic-spending rankings for the first time.

NPB’s salary structure

Japan doesn’t have a CBA, but it does have a charter, the “Pro Yakyu Kyoyaku,” approved by the 12 teams, that establishes its operating rules. Japan’s players’ union has the right — thanks to Japan’s fairly liberal labor laws — as opposed to its often draconian labor customs — to approve changes to their working conditions.

Years ago, former NPB star Leon Lee grumbled how hard it was in his then job as a scout for the Chicago Cubs to sign hungry Japanese players, and a large reason for that, he said, are the good working conditions of Japanese pro ballplayers — even those who are not yet ready for action at the top level.

Taking care of the kids

There are three tiers of NPB players. The lowest are on developmental  or “ikusei” contracts. These have a minimum salary of 2.4 million yen ($21,000) a year, cannot be activated to play in first-team Pacific and Central league games but can play in official minor league games in the Eastern and Western leagues. These players do not count against each team’s 70-man organizational roster.

They can, however, be signed to a uniform NPB contract with a 4.4 million yen ($40,000) minimum salary, where they can be activated to the first team, but do count against the 70-man roster, and can only be reserved as developmental players for three years.

Each team can also have up to 29 players on its first team active roster – although only 25 are game usable on any given day. These players’ salary – if under 14.3 million yen ($128,000) are raised to that amount every day they are on the active roster. In 2020, that goes up to 16 million yen ($144,000).

In addition to their living wages, young players have access to room and board at team dormitories, weight rooms and training facilities.

No need to sugar coat it

The Nippon Ham Fighters easily secured the negotiating rights to Shohei Ohtani at NPB’s 2012 amateur draft because the 11 other teams assumed he would sign his first pro contract with a major league team.

So five years before a host of MLB teams mapped out plans to secure Ohtani’s services, the Fighters did the same. A huge part of that was an explanation of what it meant to sign a minor league contract with a major league team, the pay, the working conditions and the cultural difficulties. The club also pointed out the relatively poor record of Japanese athletes who had turned pro overseas.

The Fighters approach, which included an opportunity to pitch and hit, and supposedly an offer to be made available to the majors via the posting system, eventually swayed him.

For a young Japanese player of exceptional talent, the advantages of turning pro here are numerous, since you can make a side deal with

The Japanese way

In MLB, minor league salaries and major league minimums are strictly monitored to make sure clubs don’t engage in private deals that would violate the terms of the CBA that limit the bargaining power of amateurs.

Japan has similar rules for first-year players, but after that teams can pay their players whatever they like. First-year players coming out of the draft are limited to:

  • 100 million yen signing bonus ($900,000) *
  • 50 million yen in incentives *
  • 16 million yen in salary

*-The signing bonus and incentive caps are limits agreed to by the teams that have not been formally added to the baseball charter and thus are not technically “rules.”

Until recently, it was customary for teams to exceed the signing bonus limits by paying cash under the table. In 2006, then Lotte Marines manager Bobby Valentine hit out at teams violating these “guidelines.” Shigeru Murata, then secretary general of the Pacific League estimated at the average first-round draft pick in NPB was getting in the neighborhood of $2.5 million under the table.

See also “NPB under the table.”

Players ineligible to enter through the draft, primarily foreign nationals who have not played amateur ball in Japan, have no salary restrictions. This allowed the SoftBank Hawks to sign Carter Stewart Jr to a six-year $6 million deal last summer.

Under-the-table deals and private personal-service contracts are how NPB teams do business with players. These can even include a promise to be posted to the big leagues in the future. All multiyear deals follow this pattern in that they only specify the ways in which the official salaries will be calculated in future one-year official contracts filed with NPB.

The sky’s the limit

Once players are under contract, however, the teams are allowed to raise their salaries as much as possible. This being Japan, teams are expected to reward big seasons by players on one-year contracts with large pay raises and no one asks questions.

The Central League’s 2019 rookie of the year, slugging first baseman Munetaka Murakami, entered last season under the first-team minimum, making 8 million yen ($72,000). His 2020 salary has been reported at 45 million ($405,000), well more than double the first-team minimum.

— For another take on this phenomenon, see “Marvin Miller’s legacy and Japan.”

The only limitations on salaries have to do with pay cuts and minimum salaries.

Players earning 100 million yen ($900,000) can be forced to take pay cuts up to 25 percent, while those earning more than 100 million yen can be forced to accept 40 percent pay cuts. Players offered pay cuts in excess of those figures can opt to be released so they can sign with another team.

Carter Stewart can change the world

Carter Stewart hasn’t thrown a baseball in anger as a member of the SoftBank Hawks, but his arrival in Japan, as the first big-name American amateur to turn pro with a Japanese team, could cause a ripple effect through baseball’s labor markets. It could mean an end to the posting system or more money for U.S. amateurs from MLB.

Say it again: “This is MLB’s fault”

Although the Hawks signing Stewart is news, it is not a new story. His signing is made possible by MLB and its union conspiring to deprive amateur players of the right to fair value for their service, and MLB’s choice to further clamp down on the below-subsistence wages paid to minor league players.

Without those two factors, no Japanese club is going to spend what it would be worth to lure a top amateur to NPB, at least not as long as the economic structure in NPB continues without significant change.

But with MLB’s draft signing pool bonuses, draft slot values, and the criminal level of pay in the minor leagues, Japanese teams can now pay the best American amateurs less than they’re worth but vastly more than MLB clubs can.

Sure, there’s a limit on having four players on each team’s active roster in Japan, but NPB clubs could theoretically have up to 52 foreign players under contract, not including those on developmental contracts, who don’t count against each organization’s 70-man official roster.

Japan was in a similar bind 25 years ago

A quarter of a century ago, Nippon Professional Baseball’s owners were bullied into allowing the Yomiuri Giants sign their big name veteran stars by agreeing to the introduction of free agency after the 1993 season.

What was intended as a way for the country’s biggest-name franchise to enrich itself at the expense of its business partners became something else altogether within two years. The free agent system was predicated on owners’ belief that competition in the majors was too hard for Japanese players.

Unfortunately, for the NPB owners, that belief was proved wrong in the most dramatic fashion by pitcher Hideo Nomo.

Jean Afterman, then working with Nomo’s agent Don Nomura, found the loophole needed to punish NPB for its arrogance. Because NPB rules considered Japanese players to be inferior and incapable of playing in the majors, they were permitted to play abroad after retiring in Japan.

So Nomo “retired” and became Japan’s first free agent import to the major leagues. Although NPB closed that loophole within a few years, the free agent route that was meant to enrich the Yomiuri Giants with Japan’s top talent, soon became a highway for Japanese stars to leave for the major leagues.

This could be something big — or not

The question then is whether this type of deal will become a supply line for Japanese baseball to upgrade its talent base at the expense of MLB.

In order for that to happen, Japanese teams will need to handle the players and develop them in a sustainable relationship with MLB so the international rules don’t change at the whim of MLB and its union.

The Japanese side of the equation

The SoftBank Hawks were perfectly placed for this kind of venture. They have the money, the infrastructure, the patience, and the will. Since SoftBank’s founder Masayoshi Son took over the club in 2005, he has aspired to field the world’s best baseball team and has frequently pestered his staff to sign the biggest names available.

Son has repeatedly challenge major league owners to an international championship series between the NPB and MLB champs, something that will happen the second MLB owners think it’s profitable.

The Hawks have invested heavily in development and in their medical side. While other clubs expect first-year pros to make an immediate impact, Hawks newcomers have to slog their way through an impressive logjam of minor league talent to even get a shot at the top.

The Hawks are an exception, but with the will, a few other teams, the PL’s Rakuten Eagles and the CL’s Giants, Hiroshima Carp and DeNA BayStars could join them in a true money ball campaign — exploiting the sizeable gap between what MLB requires amateurs be paid and what they are worth to Japanese teams. In 2023, when the Nippon Ham Fighters open their new stadium outside Sapporo and begin generating huge amounts of revenue, they could become players as well.

The Carp probably won’t go down this road, although they are well situated to expand into MLB’s Dominican Republic player pool because of their academy in that country. Hiroshima is focused on recycling talented players who fail in their first shot with big league clubs but are not willing to see their baseball dreams die.

But for now, it’s just the Hawks.

The MLB side of the equation

The market solution on the MLB side is to increase the amount of the signing bonus pools and draft slot allocations so that those amounts at least equal the value of those players to NPB teams — eliminating the demand for those players by raising the prices.

But that’s not what MLB does, and doing so would require negotiations with its union to alter the details of the CBA.

The posting system, however, is not included in the CBA. Though the agreement must conform to the CBA and the union must sign off on it — as it did in December 2017. But because either MLB or NPB can back out of the deal with a few months notice, it’s an easy way for either side to fire a shot across the bow.

With the union’s cooperation, MLB could also take more drastic measures, such as instituting its own “Tazawa Rule” — named for Junichi Tazawa, because it effectively banned him from playing in NPB because he turned pro with the Boston Red Sox rather than submit to NPB’s draft. MLB could banish players who turn pro in Japan, but that seems like too drastic of a solution, and the Tazawa Rule hasn’t prevented Japanese from following his path.

The posting system

Ironically, punishing the Hawks by eliminating the posting system might be part of SoftBank’s grand plan, since the club has never used it and is opposed to its existence. That being said, the Hawks can use the posting process as part of their plan with Stewart.

If the deal is for six years, from June 2019 to June 2025, Stewart will qualify as an international free agent under current rules on Nov. 3, 2024, exactly when the posting period begins. If Stewart develops and has value, he will have options. SoftBank being SoftBank, they’d prefer Stewart to stay in Japan and sign an extension, but without an extension, Carter would be able to move to the States as a free agent when his contract expires.

Using the posting system prior to the 2025 season would allow the Hawks to recoup all the costs incurred with signing and training Stewart and essentially get paid to benefit from all his contributions. It’s also the reason why other clubs might jump on this train. They could make a profit signing and posting American amateurs, and eliminating the posting system would put a damper on that part of the business.

Still, the Hawks would be happy to see the posting system gone, because if it remains in place and Stewart has that option, SoftBank will have a hard time denying the requests of its Japanese stars, read Kodai Senga, who want to leave early.

But sooner or later, the Hawks are going to have to fall in line and post players if the system remains in place. That’s because at some point they’ll want to sign a player who will only work for a club that promises an early exit to the majors, read Roki Sasaki.null

The Shohei Ohtani example

Shohei Ohtani is one reason why MLB would like to weaken the posting system and raise the age of international free agency. If Japan’s best amateurs think it’s easier to get to the majors through free agency by going through NPB and the posting system, it will be even harder for MLB to sign kids like Roki Sasaki, which is the big league’s ultimate wet dream.

Being major league baseball, they think no one can teach professionals the way they can be prepared through in the minor leagues with all the soul-sapping crappy treatment that entails. But the real reason is the control that comes with signing amateurs. MLB is all about control, if it weren’t we wouldn’t see blatant service time manipulation.

If Japanese teams could take the best high school stars and promise to post them at the age of 23 so they could be international free agents, everyone would benefit, the NPB teams, the players, MLB. The only thing it would cost the MLB teams is control, and they put an awfully high value on that.

The problem is that by worrying so much about control, MLB guys lose sight of one fact, that Japan is a great place to learn how to play baseball.

The advantage of a Japanese education

There are things players won’t see in Japan, like a lot of 100 mile-per-hour fastballs, but other than that, you name it and Japanese baseball has it.

When a player ventures out of the minors and into Central and Pacific league, he faces some incredible pitchers, guys who can locate their fastball and then use NPB’s stickier baseball to throw some of the wickedest breaking balls in the world. Because the talent depth is thinner, there are pitchers who lack command and control, too, guys who throw more fat pitches that can be exploited.

“A lot can be gained from playing here. Playing in Japan is a great way to develop a hitter. Look what happened with Shohei Ohtani. He’s an elite hitter and an elite pitcher. That couldn’t have happened in the States.”

Former Detroit Tigers and San Diego Padres GM Randy Smith

For a pitcher, there is less pressure from lineups where every batter is trying to take you deep, but those batters are there along with guys who can foul off one good pitch after another, and are really, really hard to strike out.

Players also get used to playing in pressure situations in meaningful games in front of large crowds. If minor league baseball are less meaningful because one goal of every player is to get promoted, NPB games are more meaningful because they are all about winning, and there is value in that.

The other side is the fanatical amount of discipline and practice, which can be a good thing if a player embraces it. Another advantage is a good diet, a place to live in the team dormitory, a healthy diet and easy access to training facilities.

What this means for Carter Stewart

It means an opportunity to learn more about pitching than he would ever learn in the United States. If there is a weakness in the Japanese system, it is that so many talented pitchers never survive the nation’s old-school youth baseball traditions.

Some NPB training methods are obsolete, and most pro coaches tend to teach players to follow established models rather than find what works best for them as individuals. In that, however, there are messages worth learning if one can handle the often authoritarian way in which those messages are delivered. If Stewart can handle that, remain humble, remember that he is coming to learn and improve, he will excel to the degree he is physically and mentally able to handle.

Simply by reaching out to Stewart, the Hawks have instantly changed the way MLB views Japan since this is something it considered impossible. If Stewart succeeds and comes out of this as a world-class player, that will be a further shock to MLB owners who have shown little but disdain for Japanese baseball.

Becoming a modern day Joshua

High school pitcher Roki Sasaki is in an unusual position.

Having pitched baseballs at 100 miles per hour, professional clubs in America and Japan may be more flexible than usual when it comes to negotiating with the Ofunato High School senior. Of course, whether he uses that leverage to break down barriers, or just goes with the flow is up to him.

The barriers

In my last post, I laid out the hurdles that stand in Sasaki’s way if he wants to play in the major leagues. A straight line may be the shortest geometric distance between two points, the quickest and easiest way for Sasaki to become a big leaguer might well be to play in Nippon Professional Baseball.

Ideally, he’d like to emulate fellow Iwate Prefecture native Shohei Ohtani and go to the majors as a 23-year-old as a veteran professional. Unfortunately, MLB closed that door before the 2018 season, by changing NPB teams’ posting fees to a percentage of a player’s contract and at the same time decided any overseas player under 25 can only sign a minor league contract and receive a case of catfood in exchange in lieu of a signing bonus. That worked for Ohtani because MLB exempted his NPB club, the Nippon Ham Fighters from the new rules and allowed them to request a $20 million posting fee.

So a 23-year-old posting is out of the question for Sasaki, who still might conceivably be drafted by a team that refuses to post players at all.

Ohtani had the option of going straight to a major league club out of high school as a pitcher but made the excellent choice of signing with the Fighters, a progressive organization that helped him nurture his unusual skill set and permitted him to go to the majors when he was ready. It seems unlikely an MLB club could have done as well.

The NPB advantage

If a teenager is really talented but not ready for the majors, NPB is a vastly better place to start than the U.S. minors. NPB’s two top leagues present a combination of world-class pitchers and hitters and a much lower floor for talent than in the majors. A really good youngster with confidence can test himself against some of the best in the world while still going up against players only a little better but more experienced than he is.

But having solved one problem by an NPB detour, only creates another for a major league aspirant: how to limit NPB’s nine-year indentured servitude and transition to MLB while young enough to make meaningful adjustments? The only meaningful way is to use his rare talent as a trumpet to bring down the barriers put in his way like Joshua and the Israelites were supposed to have done to the walls of Jericho.

Upsetting the applecart

In 2013, the wall of conventional wisdom that separated position players from pitchers — and said none shall ever do both – was broken because of Shohei Ohtani. In order to sign him and prevent the youngster from going to the U.S. as a pitcher, Fighters manager Hideki Kuriyama seized the moment, blew his trumpet and changed the world. Ohtani wouldn’t have gone that far on his own, but his talent, hard work — and his declared intent to play in America – brought Kuriyama and the Fighters to Jericho. The skipper didn’t bring down the wall but he created a breach big enough for Ohtani to step through and change baseball.

This autumn, Sasaki will be in the same position Ohtani was in late in 2012, and his choices will be difficult and fraught with anxiety and uncertainty. Assuming he wants to play in this year’s summer national high school tournament, and also hopes to play professionally in Japan, he will need to do what no one has ever done. He’ll have to announce he’ll only sign with a team that promises to post him on his terms.

That alone could generate as much negative press as Hideo Nomo’s announcement after the 1994 season that he was leaving Japan as a “retired player” to play in the majors. Nomo did the hard work, bore the brunt of the hostility, but he still needed help from agent Don Nomura and attorney Jean Afterman. And Sasaki, if he chooses to buck tradition and demand a posting promise before signing, is going to need some serious backup, too, and that will require him to break another taboo. Until now, no Japanese amateur — that I know of — has ever employed an agent to negotiate with the club that won his rights through the draft. And if the posting demand doesn’t force Japan’s ubiquitous sports dailies to exhaust their colored ink supplies, bringing in an agent – particularly one from the States — will.

Teams typically talk to a young draftee, his parents, his coach and perhaps a friendly advisor. But an agent? Not on your nelly. Perhaps they will and perhaps they won’t. Perhaps the team that drafts him will be the Yomiuri Giants or the SoftBank Hawks, who never post players and have no interest in opening that door for an 18-year-old. If so, they will wage a campaign through the media about the need to protect Japanese values and try to wait out the youngster. They won’t want to give up on him because NPB doesn’t hand out compensation draft picks the way MLB does.

The problem with that tactic, is that Sasaki, having gone to all the trouble of hiring an agent, will already have Plan B in place, which is to register with MLB in May for the next international signing period from July 2020 to June 2021. Perhaps that will light a fire under the NPB team in question and force them to deal fairly with Sasaki.

At the heart of the problem is the draft. It was implemented to keep amateurs from getting fair market value for their services and worked that way, until the top picks in America eventually started demanding something approaching fair value. The new CBA limits how much money teams can spend on signing bonuses, depriving the amateurs once more of their rights. In the same way, the new CBA allowed MLB clubs to pay Ohtani – an established star in a top-flight pro league– the same as an 18-year-old coming out of an American high school.

Japanese teams, too, have a signing bonus and contract limit on each sign newly signed draft pick, that apparently is now enforced. But they can offer more than money. They can offer — as the Fighters did with Ohtani —  a development plan and the right to choose his destiny. Baseball tradition, of course, weighs heavily against giving players options, but there are no rules restricting treating players like valued human beings.

Of course, there is no need to bend over backward for most players. This only applies to individuals who put themselves in prime position, as Ohtani did and Sasaki can. For those players with talent and options, walls can tumble, provided someone is willing to pick up that trumpet.

If young Mr. Sasaki really wants to play in the majors, there is no harm in playing Joshua and seeing what walls he can bring down.

The comic history of player agents in NPB

The story of agents negotiating for domestic players in Japan could have been written by Jerry Seinfeld. For years and years, owners would not negotiate with Japanese players’ agents. In short, the owners’ stance was “tradition.”

But as much as owners shout about traditions being inflexible, Japan’s loudest and most powerful owner over the past 40 years was also the most hypocritical. Enter former Yomiuri Shimbun president Tsuneo Watanabe, known far and wide as “Nabetsune.”

One of Japan’s most notable blowhards, then the “owner” of the Giants, Watanabe, was the leader in saying Japanese baseball relationships were unique and personal, where an agent had no place. Watanabe declared that any Giants player who hired an agent must be lacking in character and would be handed his release.

Then came pitcher Kimiyasu Kudo, now a Hall of Famer and the manager of the SoftBank Hawks. Kudo, who had joined the then-Daiei Hawks as a freee agent, tested the waters a second time after he’d helped the franchise to victory in the 1999 Japan Series. Kudo eventually signed with the Giants after sending his agent to negotiate. Other owners were livid that Nabetsune had broken ranks, but Watanabe said the attorney in question wasn’t acting as Kudo’s agent, and was only “meeting” with club officials – rather than negotiating.

The years went by and the owners continued to reject players’ agents, until the Giants did it again. This time, ace pitcher Koji Uehara sent his agent to talk with the club for his annual salary negotiation. Uehara had turned down a lucrative offer from the Angels to sign with the Giants out of university, and if Nabestsune would make good on his boast, the pitcher could go to the majors at his leisure. Unfortunately, as with Kudo, the Giants denied having talked with an agent, but rather with “a friend of the pitcher’s acting as an advisor.”

But that kind of newspaper fodder was bound to end, and did when the players union hired attorneys. Knowing “baseball tradition” has no legal weight regardless how many times their words appeared in the press, the owners accepted agents, but only for one year and only on a trial basis. That was 20 years ago,  and agents are now commonplace.

International walls of Jericho

Since two-thirds of the 30 major league teams are now trailing high school pitcher Roki Sasaki, who has repeatedly hit 100 mph, one has to wonder if he will be Japan’s first top high school prospect to move directly to the major leagues.

While that has never been an easy thing to try, it’s harder now because of Major League Baseball’s new rules. The same collective bargaining agreement with its players’ association that dictated foreign amateurs be denied fair market value for their services has an additional barrier to Japanese amateurs.

The registration barrier

Before an international amateur can sign with a big league club between July 2, 2019, to June 15, 2020, he needs to register with MLB by May 15. Which is a problem for Japanese high school students, because it comes right after the start of the school year on April 1.

According to the Japan Amateur Baseball Association, a high school player registering for the MLB international signing period would be prohibited from playing for his team. And since Sasaki aspires to take part in the national summer championship, whose finals are at historic Koshien Stadium, some consider that a deal breaker.

Another issue is the Tazawa Rule. Named after reliever Junichi Tazawa, the rule virtually bans amateur stars who sign directly with MLB teams from ever playing professionally in Japan or playing for the Japanese national team. The rule was a last-ditch attempt to bully Tazawa into not signing with the Boston Red Sox in December 2008 but has done nothing except generate ill will.

Last summer the registration issue caused a minor tempest within JABA because corporate league club Panasonic failed to notify JABA that pitcher Shumpei Yoshikawa had registered and had continued to play for his club.

Japanese officials didn’t become aware of this until Yoshikawa signed with the Arizona Diamondbacks immediately before he was scheduled to pitch for Japan in the Asian Games.

The posting-free agent barrier

If Sasaki declines to register as expected, he will have the option of taking part in Nippon Professional Baseball’s October amateur draft, with an eye to being posted at the age of 25. The problem with that is finding a team willing to do that.

Two clubs, the Pacific League’s SoftBank Hawks and the Central League’s Yomiuri Giants, have asserted their opposition to the posting system, and have never allowed a player to walk. Without being posted, he will have to accumulate nine years of service time before qualifying for international free agency.

The non-conformity barrier

In the past, teams have allowed players to leave via the posting system. Also, some players have announced they would not sign with certain clubs before the NPB draft. But as far as I’m aware, no player has made an early posting a condition of his signing. To do that, he might need the help of a good agent — something else NPB teams have never faced in dealing with drafted amateurs.

Of course, Sasaki could still go through the draft, and failing to get an offer he likes could register in May 2020 and sign with an MLB club a few months later.

Having registered with MLB, whatever NPB team holds his rights would be under more pressure to really negotiate instead of bluster or posture since NPB does not award compensation draft picks for players who refuse to sign.

This is the first of a two-part series on the Roki Sasaki dilemma.

Part 2, “Becoming a Modern Day Joshua” is HERE.

On good faith

Murray, Ohtani and baseball’s fugitive slave act

The news that the Oakland Athletics have the option of tipping the scales their way in the pursuit of two-sport star Kyler Murray, has shone a spotlight on MLB’s labor policies, and it’s not a pretty picture.

The current collective bargaining agreement between MLB and its players union deals a huge blow to the ability of amateur athletes to get market value for their services.

These rules limited Murray to a minor league contract and a fixed limit on the size of his signing bonus based on his draft slot — he was taken ninth overall. Unfortunately, Murray’s ascension as a pro football prospect have given him leverage he didn’t have when he agreed to the A’s deal.

Because both parties negotiated their original deal in good faith, the A’s are within their rights to put more money on the table.

Let’s talk about good faith for a second.

Shohei Ohtani, who was not an amateur like Murray, but an established professional and former MVP in Japan’s Pacific League, the world’s third-best after MLB’s two circuits, was told, “Sorry. But our rules say you’re an amateur.”

They might have added, “That’s because we can write our rules to say you’re an amateur. We have to do that because our owners are otherwise too irresponsible–they can’t help themselves from paying market value for amateur players and thus need to be coerced into exploiting our monopoly and depriving you of your rights. Got it?”

So instead of maybe $150 million as a 22-year-old when teams were allowed to exceed spending limits on international professional “amateurs” or waiting until 2020 and becoming a 25-year-old free agent — in MLB’s eyes — Ohtani signed a standard minor league contract with a signing bonus of around $3.5 million.

It’s too bad Ohtani wasn’t a football player. He could have had his agent enter him in the NFL draft, and then he would have been eligible to renegotiate, or perhaps not. MLB takes a harsh view of teams trying to woo players by making up the difference between their real market value and MLB’s soviet-style planned economy price.

Of course, Ohtani could have said — after signing — that he wanted to go home to play in Japan. That he got homesick. It happens. People understand. Perhaps the Angels and MLB would understand that $150 million would make him less homesick, perhaps not.

Ohtani, however, couldn’t threaten to return to NPB, because his old outfit has signed on to baseball’s version of America’s Fugitive Slave Act, which says no NPB team could then hire him — effectively putting him out of work. Take our rules or go wash dishes.

This wouldn’t be a problem if baseball adopted a more liberal system. You sign a player for as many years as you want to commit to him and pay him what you have to. When that period expires he’s free to go. If he wants to leave in the meantime, you can name your price or refuse. It’s essentially a free market. Unfortunately, professional baseball is ideologically opposed to free markets in any shape or form — except in its belief that its less-skilled employees such as minor leaguers and entry-level staff be paid as little as possible.

So the A’s and Murray, like the Angels and Ohtani, were all dealing in good faith. But when will MLB start doing that?

MLB’s new CBA a blow to diversity, growth

Major League Baseball took a subtle step toward greater homogenzation in January, when it ratified a labor deal with its union that will lead to less experimentation and fodder for evolution. Aimed at robbing Cuban professionals of their bargaining power in the same way MLB robs homegrown amateurs of theirs, the new agreement will lead to a duller, less imaginative brand of baseball.

The agreement raises the age for foreign pros to be treated as anything but amateurs from 23 to 25, not a huge increase but one which could dissuade talented amateurs in Japan, South Korea and Taiwan from turning professional in their home countries and instead signing directly with MLB clubs.

This would allow MLB teams to scoop up more foreign talent at rock-bottom prices rather than paying out huge sums for professional free agents years down the line. Yet, some of the value overseas pros bring to MLB is not measurable in physical attributes alone but in having competed in a radically different environment, having developed different skill sets and going up against some elite professional opponents at a young age.

The blindingly obvious example is Shohei Otani, a name familiar to every top executive on every MLB team. The 23-year-old Otani was the most valuable player in Japan’s Pacific League this year, is Japan’s fastest pitcher while being one its elite hitters. His Japanese team, the Nippon Ham Fighters, will allow him to move to the majors in the autumn, but because MLB’s new labor deal defines Otani as an amateur, a player whose contract was expected to range from 200 to 300 million dollars, will be on the market for around $10 million.

While Japan’s two top leagues lack the talent depth of their U.S. counterparts, Otani is the first in Japanese pro history to hit 10 or more home runs in the same season in which he won 10 or more games, and has done it twice. The only other player to do that in a top-flight professional league was Babe Ruth – who then gave up pitching to concentrate on batting every day.

The right-handed throwing, left-handed hitting wunderkind will, as early as 2018, get a chance to see how well his talents play in the big leagues. Ironically, Otani had not planned on turning pro in Japan, and had to be convinced not to sign with an MLB club. But the Nippon Ham Fighters drafted him and manager Hideki Kuriyama convinced him that his club would allow him to both hit and pitch and by competing against Japan’s best at the age of 18, prepare him for the majors at an early age.

Although many former ballplayers in Japan scoffed at Otani wasting time on hitting when he should be honing his pitching skills, the youngster has shown an amazing ability to both develop his arsenal and velocity on the mound, while refining his swing and his batting approach. And like the old guys here, major league scouts are beginning to think his batting – Otani was voted his league’s best pitcher and designated hitter this year – could have value at the highest level. While the competition in Japan is different from the majors, Otani’s batting compares favorably with Hideki Matsui’s at the same age, while his pitching prowess has matched Yu Darvish’s.

We will never know good a pitcher Otani would be now if he had gone directly to the States as an 18-year-old, but we do know this: Had he signed with an MLB team out of high school, nobody would know he could hit, because no big league club would have permitted him to do both.

Otani is a better and more exciting player because he stayed in Japan, competing against NPB’s best and playing for a team and a manager who were willing to do things differently. If he does buck the odds and succeed in the big leagues on the mound and in the batter’s box – as only Babe Ruth has ever done – it may change baseball’s thinking about what a determined and talented player can accomplish and mean teams will no longer tell players it is impossible to both pitch and bat at a high level.

When Otani does move to the U.S., MLB will benefit from the lessons he learned in NPB. But by discouraging future amateurs from following Otani’s route and by having them skip the advanced skill lessons Japanese pro ball teaches and the U.S. minors don’t, the American game is narrowing an avenue for future growth and evolution and will be the poorer for it.