Tag Archives: Free agency

Players settle on service

With just three days to go before Opening Day, labor and management settled on multiplying each day on the active roster this year by 1.3 so that the shortened season will not hurt players needing to accumulate service time toward free agency.

The result came in the third negotiating session between the Japan Pro Baseball Players Association and Nippon Professional Baseball. The season, shortened from 143 games to 120, will take place over a span of 151 days instead of 190.

The active rosters will also be expanded from 29 to 31, to allow players more rest in order to stave off COVID-19, which will also allow one or two more players each day to accumulate days toward the 145 needed to count as one year toward free agency.

Full international free agency requires nine years, while players who turned pro after leaving a Japanese high school can file for domestic free agency after seven, while those who go from junior high or high school to the pros need eight years to move to another NPB club under their own power.

One additional imported player can be carried on the active rosters this year, although the prohibition against having four pitchers or four position players will remain.

Liar’s poker

The course of relations between NPB and MLB has not always been smooth, and after 1995 — when Major League Baseball granted Hideo Nomo free agency because Nippon Professional Baseball’s organizing document is an obsolete mess that didn’t prohibit him from going.

To keep things civil, the two bodies have a document known in all its glory as the “Agreement between the Office of the Commissioner of Baseball and the Office of the Commissioner of Nippon Professional Baseball.”

Japan’s governing document, the Pro Baseball Agreement was based on the fallacy that Japanese players were inherently inferior to major leaguers. It did not prevent voluntarily retired NPB players from contracting with pro clubs overseas. The thinking was, if Japanese players are not good enough for MLB in the first place, what chance would a retired player have of making a roster?

Nomo moved to the majors by threatening to retire if the Kintetsu Buffaloes declined to meet his outrageous contract demands. They said, “No way,” forwarded his retirement application, and before you could say “sayonara,” he was a major league free agent.

I mention this, because it was followed by some spiteful lies from an NPB official that kept MLB teams from pursuing players in Japan.

Lies

In 1996, when Tadahito Iguchi was a star of Japan’s Atlanta Olympic team, and was seen as a potential candidate to play in MLB, one team filed the paperwork necessary to make sure he was available.

Mind you, Iguchi was then playing for Aoyama Gakuin University, and it really wasn’t necessary for an MLB team to get NPB’s permission, but one scout said, he did, and was told Iguchi was off limits, period.

To be sure, MLB had a kind of gentleman’s agreement to only sign players who had been passed over in NPB’s draft, but it was not a rule. But NPB, still smarting from the fact that MLB followed NPB’s rules when it granted Nomo free agency, simply lied and it took Iguchi another nine years before he would make his MLB debut with the Chicago White Sox.

Incompetence

In order to prevent another player from retiring in order to become a free agent in the States, NPB patched that hole in its leaky rule structure. Unfortunately, the person in charge of communicating with MLB, neglected one thing, Article 14 of the agreement.

“If either party to this Agreement has a material change in its reserve rules or any other rule identified in this Agreement, that party shall immediately notify the other party of any such change, and the other party shall have the right to seek renegotiation of and/or termination
of this Agreement upon ten (l0) days’ written notice.”

Two years passed without incident, until a speedy power-hitting 21-year-old decided he would be better off in the majors than under the stifling long-term deal he’d signed with the Hiroshima Carp as a 16-year-old in the Dominican Republic.

With help from agent Don Nomura and Jean Afterman, Alfonso Soriano announced his retirement from baseball, and, as they said, “did a Nomo.” When NPB pointed to its rules, MLB pointed to the lack of notice from NPB about changing the rules.

If NPB and the league executives were mad after Nomo, the Soriano screw-up left them steaming.

More lies

The next documented incident occurred in 2000. That year, the Nippon Ham Fighters signed an American pitcher from Taiwan, Carlos Mirabal, who saved 19 games for them on a one-year deal. Because he had a veteran agent who had players in Japan and knew the ropes, I would doubt he would leave Mirabal without the customary contractual protection agents give to their clients who are import players in Japan (see my story).

After his solid season, the Colorado Rockies came calling. They contacted MLB, who called their liaison in Japan, and were told, according to the story Mirabal heard, “He’s a reserved player who can’t leave until he’s been here nine years and is a free agent or is posted.”

While that is possible, it is about as likely as a midsummer snowstorm in Tokyo.

The most obvious explanation, is simply that NPB’s official lied to MLB, and Mirabal negotiated a new contract with the Fighters, who had they actually reserved him, could have just handed him a contract with a figure on it and told him to sign it or quit playing baseball.

Tetsuto Yamada keeps door open for move from Yakult

Second baseman Tetsuto Yamada ostensibly became the highest-paid player in the history of the Yakult Swallows, Kyodo News (Japanese) reported in its online edition Tuesday. The 27-year-old is the only player in NPB history to hit .300 with 30 home runs and 30 steals more than once in his career.

He accomplished the feat for the third time in 2018. In 2019, he went 33-for-36 as a base stealer with 35 home runs, but only batted. 271. Despite that slight hiccup, Yamada received a 70 million yen pay increase for 2020 after turning down a multiyear contract. This opens the door for him to file for domestic free agency next November or even ask the Swallows to post him.

As Japan’s premier second baseman since he broke out in the second half of the 2014 season at the age of 21, some have wondered if Yamada might ask Yakult to post him, and he did express some positive feelings about such a move. Since then, the lingering effects of being hit by a pitch in August 2016, and a quiet multiyear commitment to the team muted talk of a major league move.

Despite the injury that reduced his production to fairly pedestrian levels for nearly two seasons, Yamada’s peak value is unmatched among NPB second baseman, a position where Japan has traditionally obsessed about fielding and preferred slap hitters. His best three seasons using Bill James’ win shares rank 10th in NPB history. The value of his best five-year span is 15th. Both are tops at his position in Japanese pro baseball history.

Although he is not shy and retiring like notable busts like pitcher Kei Igawa and second baseman Kensuke Tanaka, Yamada seems content, like Yomiuri Giants shortstop Hayato Sakamoto, to be a superstar in Japan. If Yamada does remain in Japan, expect the Giants or his hometown Hanshin Tigers to make a serious run at him next season along with the SoftBank Hawks, who have not had a big gun at second since Tadahito Iguchi left after the 2004 season.

Yamada’s 2019 salary was reportedly the highest the club had ever paid a Japanese player, while next year’s deal eclipses the 450 million paid to first baseman Roberto Petagine after he was the CL’s MVP in 2001.

Second to none: NPB’s top-10 second basemen

The following table gives my estimate of the top-10 second basemen in the history of Japanese professional baseball, based on: Each player’s ranking among all players in total career win shares, the value of their five-best consecutive seasons, and the total of their three best seasons — all as measured by Bill James’ win shares.

I don’t have win shares data prior to 1946. With those numbers, Chiba, who began playing in 1938 might move up a little closer to Yamada.

NameOverall RankCareer WS5-year spanBest-3 seasons
Tetsuto Yamada*25th153rd15th10th
Tadahito Iguchi46th22nd76th70th
Shigeru Chiba+76th132nd70th70th
Hideto Asamura*78th156th75th60th
Tatsuyoshi Tatsunami+90th34th146th231st
Bobby Rose91st172nd75th92nd
Hiroyuki Yamazaki109th60th192nd216th
Yutaka Takagi131st121st169th191st
Ryosuke Kikuchi*133rd306th125th106th
Yuichi Honda155th204th149th226th

The kotatsu league: Tigers sign minor league righty Gunkel

A day after they concluded a contract for 2020 with lefty Onelki Garcia, the Hanshin Tigers announced they have added Miami Marlins minor league right-hander Joe Gunkel.

The 27-year-old comes out of the Marlins organization. In four Triple-A seasons, Gunkel posted a 3.77 ERA. He struck out 6.23 batters per nine innings while walking 1.19 and allowing a little more than one home run per nine.

In a statement released by the Tigers, Gunkel said he was excited to be playing in Japan after hearing how good Japanese baseball was from former teammate and Yakult Swallows reliever Scott McGough.

Japanese-only free agency needs a 2nd look

Number magazine’s website “Number Web” posed an interesting question that speaks to the heart of one of Nippon Professional Baseball’s paradoxes — how come teams losing top foreign stars to another NPB club cannot receive compensation?

The answer is of course that foreign-registered players, unlike Japanese, cannot be reserved unless they agree to a contract for the following season. They are in essence free agents the minute their contractual obligation to a team ends. The Number Web article uses Wladimir Balentien‘s impending move to the three-time Japan Series champion SoftBank Hawks as an example because — according to NPB’s silliest rule — he has acquired the right to file for free agency.

Thus, one could argue that the Yakult Swallows, for whom he played nine seasons, are losing a free agent but receiving zip in return. But using Balentien as an example is ridiculous. What about Onelki Garcia? He went 13-9 for the Chunichi Dragons in 2018 on a one-year deal and then decided to split to the Hanshin Tigers when Chunichi wanted to re-sign him.

Heck, the Yomiuri Giants’ back-to-back 2008 and 2009 pennants were built on the backs of stealing players the Swallows had scouted and signed. Pitchers Seth Greisinger went 30-15 over those two seasons, while Dicky Gonzalez was 15-2 in 2009 — the year he moved to Yomiuri from Yakult. Left fielder Alex Ramirez moved four stops down the Chuo Line to Tokyo Dome and won back-to-back Central League MVP Awards.

The Swallows response to the talent drain was to begin offering lucrative long-term contracts, starting with Balentien, reliever Tony Barnette and outfielder Lastings Milledge. The latter deal didn’t pan out, but the contracts for Balentien and Barnette were instrumental in Yakult’s 2015 pennant.

Free agency was the baby of the Yomiuri Giants — a plan for Japan’s most prestigious team to snap up as much previously unavailable talent as possible. But this winter, Giants Hall of Fame manager Tatsunori Hara has railed against compensation that annually costs his club a player here and a player there.

Since the Giants are the biggest talent poachers in NPB, they would likely dig in their heels at the thought of having to shell out even more for foreign talent just because it’s easier to get Japan-ready talent from the Swallows than it is to actually find it yourself.

Marvin Miller’s legacy and Japan

Labor organizer Marvin Miller, who energized major league baseball players into seizing a huge amount of control over their labor from the owners, was voted into National Baseball Hall of Fame on Sunday. According to his son Peter, it wasn’t something he aspired to or wished to acknowledge.

His election has sparked some thoughts about how Japan’s baseball labor situation differs from that in the majors and why the two games are so different. Typically, we talk about the differences in how the game is played, but labor relations, too, are somewhat different.

In MLB, Miller’s acumen and leadership skills galvanized the players into taking action that eventually revealed the owners’ flawed basis for dictatorial control over players’ rights. His actions brought arbitration and then free agency. Because these changes removed the ability of owners to pay pennies on the dollar for labor, baseball executives at the time predicted they usher in the destruction of Major League Baseball.

They meant that like destroying Major League Baseball was a bad thing. Of course, it didn’t. Instead of destroying baseball, it forced teams to revolutionize their business models in order to be able to afford to buy players on a more free market. That change revitalized the business of baseball.

Before Miller MLB was not plantation slavery but a form of wage slavery. Players were bound to serve their owners or find other employment that did not reward their most marketable skills. After Miller, the MLB labor market became a kind of indentured servitude, where players handed owners control over their work for a fixed period of time.

Whenever MLB wants to defend itself, it talks about the owners as caretakers of American tradition. Talk like that has zero connection with the truth when owners defend their heinous policies as “normal business practices.” In that sense, MLB is a caretaker of American tradition, the 19th-century kind, when business owners relied on detectives and police to help “settle” labor disputes, by busting heads and breaking bones.

Japan’s “model” society

The best thing about Japanese baseball is that while the game is influenced by developments in the majors, it is ordered by different beliefs about how and why it is played. Japanese teams and owners can be just as stupid or innovative or ignorant as their MLB counterparts, but their behavior is modified by Japan’s social norms.

Just as in MLB, Japan’s owners have long assumed they deserved the power to exercise total over the game and the players. Japan’s version has rarely been so harsh as the bitter anti-labor ownership in America. Not because baseball team owners in Japan are kinder, but because society expects them to occasionally demonstrate ritual acts of kindness.

A Japanese company will work its laborers to death but is expected to organize a free employees trip every year,

Thus while MLB teams routinely manipulate players’ service time to maximize control over prospects at the cost of wins in the short term, Most Japanese teams will listen to requests of players wishing to leave and go to the majors and many of those requests are granted — at great cost to the team giving up the player.

Japanese teams aren’t pro-labor and do in fact exploit their players, but they also observe social expectations about pay raises. Rookies who have outstanding seasons can earn salaries many times the minimum. Japan’s owners are under no real obligation to reward the players — other than the social one.

Any analogy of pre-arbitration MLB as slavery is clearly wrong — because players could opt-out at great personal cost and not be pursued as runaway athletes. But for the sake of comparison, let’s assume MLB was a form of slavery. If so, MLB was the slavery exposed by Uncle Tom’s Cabin, where the mere existence of pernicious abuse was a threat to its apologists and proponents — who claimed human beings were better off in benevolent bondage.

If that light, the Japanese form of baseball labor relations has always been a little closer to apologists’ romanticized view of slavery. But simply being less onerous than MLB’s version doesn’t make it right.

According to Peter Miller, his father’s ultimate goal was freedom for the players to choose, something even the most benevolent of baseball autocracies cannot accept.

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.

NPB games, news of Aug. 20, 2019

This is the start of Japanese baseball’s ugly “magic season.” It almost started after the all-star break, but the Yomiuri Giants prevented that by losing a bunch of games.

Tonight’s story from the Lions-Fighters game at MetLife Dome wasn’t about Shogo Akiyama but rather that the Lions’ win prevented the SoftBank Hawks’ magic number “lamp from being lit.”

Bad magic

The magic number in NPB is defined, not as the number of games one needs to clinch the pennant. It is that, of course, but that would be too simple for a nation where baseball is not really baseball unless it’s really, really anal retentive.

A Japanese magic number is much more. It is the number of games you have to win (or your nearest rival has to lose) for you to clinch the pennant, provided — and here’s the kicker — none of your wins come against that closest competitor. That last qualification decides when your magic number will appear. On occasion, teams needing to beat that team to win, will win a pennant without ever having a magic number at all.

The thing about the ugly magic season is that few teams are actually eliminated from contention in August, and nobody clinches, so newspapers waste a whole lot of copy inches writing about magic number lore, precedents and you name it. The earliest magic number in franchise history? You betcha.

And if the second-place team drops down in the standings, and is replaced by a team with more games against the leading pennant contender, then the magic number can vanish, prompting even more dumb stories from the nation’s ubiquitous sports dailies.

And now for something completely different: baseball.

Pacific League

Lions 4, Fighters 2

At MetLife Dome, on the day Shogo Akiyama qualified to file for international free agency this offseason, he singled in two runs to overturn a 1-0 deficit and give Seibu the lead in a win over Nippon Ham.

Zach Neal (7-1) only struck out one batter over six innings, but retired nine-straight batters at one stretch and six more at another to allow just a run on Haruki Nishikawa’s first-inning leadoff homer.

Bryan Rodriguez (6-4) started and went five innings, allowing two runs, one earned, as Nippon Ham seems to be giving Mizuki Hori a rest from his duties as opener.

Game highlights are HERE.

Marines 7, Eagles 3

At Zozo Marine Stadium, Ayumu Ishikawa (4-5) was his vintage self, striking out 11 over eight innings, while Takayuki Kishi (2-4) was misfiring, allowing three runs over 6-2/3 innings in Rakuten’s loss to Lotte.

Central League

Giants 2, Dragons 1

At Nagoya Dome, Yoshihiro Maru powered Yomiuri’s offense in the first inning, singling in Hayato Sakamoto with the game’s first run, moving to third on a fly out and scoring on a delayed double steal in a win over Chunichi.

Sakamoto’s first-inning double and Maru’s single represented the total of the Giants’ scoring opportunities through eight innings, the first seven against veteran lefty Yudai Ono (7-7). Giants starter Cristopher Mercedes (8-6) loaded the bases in the first with no outs, and left in the sixth with two on and no outs, but allowed just one run to earn the win.

Rubby De La Rosa earned his fifth save for the Giants after facing four batters in the ninth and striking out two.

Tigers 8, BayStars 0

At Kyocera Dome, DeNA walked Koji Chikamoto with two outs and two on in the fifth inning to load the bases, only for starter Haruhiro Hamaguchi (6-5) walked Seiya Kinami to open the scoring. Kosuke Fukudome followed with a three-run double to seal Hanshin’s win.

Tigers starter Koyo Aoyagi (6-8) struck out eight over 5-2/3 innings, including two back-to-back to escape a one-out, bases-loaded pickle in the second.

Jefry Marte iced the game in the seventh for Hanshin with a two-run home run.

Game highlights are HERE.

Carp 9, Swallows 8

At Mazda Stadium, Seiya Suzuki’s three-run ninth-inning homer off David Huff (1-3) tied it for Hiroshima, and Takumi Miyoshi singled in the winning run as Yakult blew a three-run ninth-inning lead.

Yakult appeared to have the game sown up after two-run, eighth-inning homers by Tetsuto Yamada and Yuhei Takai.

NPB games, news of Aug. 5, 2019

Monday is usually an off day, but the Rakuten Eagles and Lotte Marines played a makeup game.

Marines 8, Eagles 1

At Rakuten Seimei Park, former Lotte closer Yuji Nishino (1-1) won his second straight start, going five scoreless innings and facing 19 batters at the same park where he last started and won on Sept. 30, 2017.

Seiya Inoue opened the scoring with a third-inning leadoff homer against Rakuten’s Shoma Fujihira (0-1), who couldn’t find his control and loaded the bases with no outs in a two-run Lotte fourth.

News

NPB to consider version of Rule 5 Draft

Nippon Professional Baseball’s executive committee and board of directors met on Monday in Tokyo and presented a concrete plan to the teams for the introduction of an active player draft similar in respects to Major League Baseball’s Rule 5 Draft of players not on 40-man rosters.

Atsushi Ihara, NPB’s secretary general, said it is now up to the parties to study the proposal that would allow players on NPB’s 70-man rosters with scant opportunities for playing time to move to other clubs.

Monday’s proposal is for a draft to be held every two years.

Such a draft is something the Japan Professional Baseball Players Association has been pushing for years, in addition to shortened requirements for free agency (currently nine years to qualify for unlimited international filing rights) and player rental, and minor league free agency.

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.