Former Giants ace and major league closer Koji Uehara on Thursday raised a novel criticism of Japanese baseball’s free agency system. He took exception not with the absurd service time requirements, but how the system’s mechanisms turn it into a public loyalty test.
The Japanese system was established by owners who had been strong-armed by the Yomiuri Giants. Yomiuri wanted to be able to skim the cream of the nation’s veteran talent each year and couldn’t conceive that Japanese players might use it to play in the majors since the very idea was inconceivable to their social Darwinist mind-sets.
The system that went into effect in the winter of 1993-1994 so that the Giants could plunder other teams’ rosters and drive up salaries, requires eligible players to file for free agency. Players who do so may negotiate with any team but may not exercise that right again until they acquire an additional four years of service time.
Uehara believes that filing or not filing for free agency therefore becomes a public loyalty test, where players who announce they are not filing, or who are filing with the intent of re-signing with their existing clubs, are branded as being loyal, while others in some cases, are mocked in the press as being traitors.
“I don’t want players to make their decision about free agency based on it being an invisible measure of their loyalty to the team.”–Koji Uehara
Uehara’s solution is superficially a simple one: Make every player with enough service time a free agent.
This small change, however, would force a drastic overhaul of the system. Players with enough service time would be free to leave whenever their contracts expire. The four-years of service time needed to refile would be scrapped. The notion of free-agent compensation would have to be reconsidered. Yet there is a bigger hurdle, the simple desire to keep the game the way it is.
Uehara also said automatic free agency would keep rival teams from approaching players in secret and encouraging them to jump ship.
“I’ve heard that before players make their decisions to file, other teams contact them on the sly trying to encourage them,” Uehara wrote. “But if there was no choice for players to make about whether or not to declare themselves free agents, then there would be no benefit to teams to contact players in secret. It would be transparent.”
Transparency, however, is not something Japanese pro baseball really excels at. Japanese baseball’s greatest advocate of transparency, former commissioner Ryozo Kato, ended confusion about the balls in play by instituting a standard uniform ball everyone could understand. But his desire to put things in the open was met by a backlash which ended up in his being ousted in a palace coup.
The owners simply don’t want to do anything differently if they don’t have to, but being hesitant to change is not always a bad thing.
Japanese teams market marginal players to their fan bases, and stars are only traded under exceptional circumstances. It’s part of the fabric that sees players as more than employees and hired guns. A change to a more matter-of-fact system like MLB’s might also encourage the adoption of MLB’s more unpalatable practices such as the wage slavery of minor leaguers and pre-arbitration major leaguers.
There’s nothing wrong with being business-like, but when being business-like means elevating promoting baseball games to sets of ruthless spreadsheet-driven transactions, then you risk losing what you’re trying to protect.