Tag Archives: Scott Boras

Winds of change

Former Dodgers GM, agent and Blue Jays international scout Dan Evans said Thursday he expects Japanese teams might poach some amateur talent from among the amateurs who are either drafted by MLB clubs this week or who were passed over in the majors’ effort to cut expenditures on baseball.

There are several reasons why this might happen and a few reasons why it might not.

Why top U.S. talent may leave for Japan

  1. Signing bonus pools and slot money
  2. Deferred bonuses and reduced draft
  3. The Carter Stewart Jr precedent
  4. NPB developmental contracts
  5. More interest in developing overseas talent
  6. Quality of competition
  7. There are few things better than getting well paid to live in a foreign country.
  8. The possibility of entering MLB as a 25- or 26-year-old free agent.

Reasons why talented amateurs may stay

  1. Living in a foreign country is not an easy adjustment
  2. Japanese baseball can be a bit like boot camp
  3. Most teams lack the infrastructure and know-how to handle and train non-Japanese youngsters
  4. Agents
  5. Lack of international amateur scouting
  6. NPB’s self-imposed limitations

My Japan Baseball Weekly Podcast partner John Gibson responded to Dan’s tweet by saying that if amateurs subject to the MLB draft DO come to Japan, it will largely be accidental since it has happened once, and then only because of a series of coincidences. Still, because it has now happened, agents and NPB teams may have a more open-minded approach to the possibility than they did 18 months ago.

Ok. So here are the reasons why it might happen:

Why it could hapen

Signing bonus pools and slot money

This is not new, but the idea that MLB teams would band together with the help of the players union to cap how much amateurs could get paid means Japanese teams can outbid them. This wasn’t the case back in the day, but it is now.

Deferred bonuses and reduced draft

I’m not going to talk about the stupid stuff MLB is doing to cut corners since that would likely come out of the wrong orifice, but this year is different, and the rewards and opportunities MLB teams are even less tempting than usual.

The Carter Stewart Jr precedent

Carter Stewart Jr set himself up to set a precedent when he opted out of reentering the 2019 June draft and instead moved to Japan. This was, as mentioned above, the result of a fortuitous series of coincidences. The Atlanta Braves tried to cheat him, he wouldn’t play their game, and his a former coach was a scout for Japan’s SoftBank Hawks.

A lightning strike was needed the first time. It won’t be an accident the next time around.

Here ourJBW Podcast interview with Carter Stewart Jr HERE.

Something John and I realized from talking with Stewart was the value of working out with former major league veterans and being able to watch them and learn from them. Japan’s foreign community can be small. The community of foreign ballplayers is even smaller, but some of those guys had long careers in MLB and overseas and can be a huge resource that few minor leaguers in the States will have access to.

NPB developmental contracts

These are non-roster, three-year contracts that allow the player to take part in minor league games here and earn a spot on the 70-man roster. The minimum salary for a developmental player–often referred to as a “three digit” player because their uniforms all have three digits–is 2.4 million yen a year, about $22,000.

That’s not much but it’s better than what anyone is going to get in minor league baseball, plus the living conditions are vastly better. This is a new thing that didn’t exist 20 years ago and this extra little step means less commitment is necessary for Japanese teams to give overseas talent an extended look.

HERE‘s a primer on NPB’s salary structures.

More interest in developing overseas talent

This ties in with the developmental contracts, because they have opened teams’ eyes to the possibility of signing low-rent international talent, and then promoting the best players. The idea that imported talent is only for impact now has changed a bit because of that, and that change of mind means more receptive audiences when the agents of U.S. amateurs come calling.

The SoftBank Hawks may have started it, but their Pacific League-rival Seibu Lions are eager to catch up and completed an expanded minor league facility behind their home park, MetLife Dome, outside of Tokyo. The Central League’s Yomiuri Giants also have the infrastructure and the cash to make to make it work now.

Quality of competition

People slam the quality of competition in Japan as not being as good as it is in MLB. It isn’t as good, but most of the people who say that don’t quite understand the way in which it isn’t as good. There are elements of Japanese ball that are better than in the majors, but talent depth is not one of them.

With fewer minor leaguers and fewer organizations, there are only about 1,000 pro players in Japan, meaning that while Japan’s national team could probably kick ass in MLB once the players got acclimated, the quality of talent drops off much more quickly than it does in MLB, so that even the best clubs will have a regular or two who might be fringe Triple-A guys in the States.

What that means for a young guy learning to play pro baseball is that if you are good enough to make it to the first team, the level of competition you could face as a teenager would be vastly higher than anything you’ll see below the major leagues.

Get paid to live in a foreign country

OK. So I’m biased on this one. But Japan is a great place to live. It has its quirks and head-shaking customs, but find a place that doesn’t. It’s safe, clean, and the people are generally welcoming and hospitable.

Enter MLB as a 25-year-old free agent

Ok or maybe as a 26-year-old. Do you know how many players reach free agency in the major leagues before they’re 26? Almost none. If you can cut it in Japan, and you don’t absolutely want to play your whole career here, you could enter MLB as an international free agent when all but the most elite in your age group are still pre-arb.

But no rose bush worthy of the name is without thorns. So here are some reasons why a number of talented amateurs might avoid Japan despite all its benefits just so MLB teams can treat them to the luxuries of minor league baseball.

What’s holding guys back

You have to live in a foreign country

Japan’s a great place to live, but it isn’t the same as home. The food is different, the language is different, many things that signify baseball for you will not have the same meaning for your teammates. It isn’t for everybody.

Japanese baseball can be like boot camp

Bring your running shoes. Practices are early and practices are long, and while the coaches here will teach you everything, some can lack interest in the possibility that a player can succeed in a way he doesn’t imagine. So players often get put into pigeon holes–although this is more for domestic guys, who’ve already had their approaches put into buckets as Lotte Marines pitcher Frank Herrmann referred to Japan’s different styles.

Teams lack infrastructure and knowhow

OK, so one team has done it, and probably more teams are interested in doing it, but to be honest only three teams out of 12 could probably pull it off.

Former Tigers great Masayuki Kakefu said when he asked the front office why the team doesn’t do more to develop more talent, the answer was money. It takes more than just signing players to developmental contracts, they need a place to play, coaches, equipment, trainers, housing, and money to transport them around to their games.

Most teams just look at that and say, “Nah. We’re good.”

Agents

Eighteen months ago at the Las Vegas winter meetings, I asked Scott Boras about the possibility of top amateurs flocking to Japan. His answer was, “Won’t happen.”

And though he represented Carter Stewart when he signed with SoftBank, two different sources have told me that was only because Stewart’s family threatened to take their business to another agency (CAA) if Boras wouldn’t cut a deal with the Hawks.

Lack of international amateur scouting

Although Stewart was spotted by a Hawks scout, that was just luck. Not even every NPB team has overseas scouts, and virtually all of them are looking for professionals, not amateurs, although that may change.

Self-imposed restrictions

On a recent episode of FanGraphs’ “Effectively Wild” podcast, draft and amateur scouting analyst Eric Longenhagen discussed the possibility that Japanese teams should welcome the talent that otherwise would be going into MLB organizations.

He suggested now was the time for NPB–and Korea Baseball Organization, too–to boost their international profile by signing elite American talent. He mentioned it would be a good time to change NPB’s limit of four imported players on the active roster and to perhaps look into overseas broadcasting deals while MLB continues to suck wind.

The problem is that the players union would need to approve more imported players on the roster, and like most owners, they don’t give a fig for the league’s international appeal. Also, NPB doesn’t control its own TV rights, the individual teams do. The Pacific League might do so via Pacific League marketing, but the old school Central League? Don’t hold your breath.

Conclusion

I won’t be surprised if one or two guys come to Japan, especially if they were not drafted, and are looking at minor league salaries with virtually no signing bonuses. Those whose families cannot support them may find that the only way to keep their pro baseball dreams alive is in Japan.

And if you’re a player and your agent doesn’t know any NPB international directors, hit me up and I’ll connect you.

Scott Boras’ underground railroad

A year ago, Scott Boras told jballallen.com that moving an American or Canadian amateur overseas would not allow him to return as an international free agent — that the only way to enter MLB was through the June draft.

Here’s that soundbite.

Boras on amateurs in NPB

On Tuesday, he reported on Carter Stewart’s first season with the SoftBank Hawks. Stewart signed a six-year deal in June that will allow him to enter MLB as an international free agent after he turns 25.

Asked what had changed since our chat last year, Boras denied telling a lie but rather said he was just not revealing his hand.

“I wasn’t throwing you off the track. I just wasn’t showing you all the tracks.”

NPB news of Oct. 27, 2019

My prospective MLB player page “Guess who’s coming to dinner” has been updated HERE.

Eagles’ Mima to test free agency

Rakuten Eagles right-hander Manabu Mima, who posted a 4.01 ERA in 143-2/3 innings this year and has a career 51-60 record, said Sunday he would file for domestic free agency. He’s one of the few Japanese pitchers to regularly feature a two-seam fastball, and throws his slider nearly as often as his 143.6 kph four-seamer.

Nomura to stick with Carp

Saying that he “loves the Hiroshima Carp,” right-hander Yusuke Nomura said this week that he would not file for domestic free agency in order to remain in Hiroshima.

The 30-year-old, a 16-game winner when the Carp ended their 24-year championship drought in 2016, has struggled the last two season, not reaching 120 innings or having an ERA below 4.00.

Stewart heads home

Carter Stewart Jr returned to the United States on Sunday after completing his first season of pro ball in Japan competing for the SoftBank Hawks’ third team. The third-team is typically composed of players on developmental contracts and does not compete in a league, but rather plays amateur and independent minor league teams.

Nikkan Sports reported on his departure. According to their report, Stewart won four games with a 4.36 ERA, and said he hopes to impress in spring training so that he can compete for the Hawks’ top farm team in the Western League and make his Pacific League debut with the big club.

The 19-year-old right-hander who declined to sign with the Atlanta Braves in 2018 as the eighth player taken in MLB’s June amateur draft that year, will be eligible to enter MLB as an international free agent after turning 25 with six seasons of pro baseball under his belt.

Nikkan sports, translating his English into Japanese, reported that he said he had gotten used to Japanese ball. He pitched in two instructional league games prior to his departure and was handed an offseason training menu before his departure.

Stewart is a client of Scott Boras, who in December told me a player such as his client would be unable to qualify for international free agency and would have to re-enter MLB’s draft. So either Boras was lying to throw me off the scent, or didn’t know. If so, he was not alone, as two other agents also told me that week that U.S. and Canadian citizens could not circumvent the draft by playing abroad.

Don’t believe me, believe Scott:

Scott Boras in December 2018 on the possibility of circumventing MLB draft

Stewart hopeful others will follow

Carter Stewart not only has high expectations for his next six years in Japan, but he hopes he is the first of many American baseball players to turn pro on this side of the Pacific. On Monday, just hours before Major League Baseball’s June draft that he skipped out in order to sign with the SoftBank Hawks, Stewart met the press in Fukuoka.

“There are a lot of reasons why I wanted to come over here, but a big thing is the atmosphere, the quality of baseball, the facilities,” said at a press conference. “Those are some of the key points, when I got here that showed me they were top notch, that they were high-class grade baseball. That’s the real reason I chose to play over here.”

The opportunity was made possible by the Atlanta Braves lowering their signing bonus offer to him last year and by the huge gap between what MLB teams are willing to pay amateurs up front and what Japanese teams can gain from those players’ services. Japan also offers the possibility that he could enter MLB as a free agent after the 2024 season, at least two years earlier than he could hope to reach that status in the majors.

Instead of watching minor league teammates struggle to exist and survive on sub-poverty wages, Stewart will be among people who are housed and paid relatively well in a structured, clean and safe environment.

“The way with the baseball is now in the States, more amateurs at least should give this a try… Anybody who plays baseball, they want a chance to play high-quality baseball,” he said.

“In the future, I would hope some more amateur players from the U.S. would want to come over here, just because. From what I’ve seen, I only have great things to say. I don’t know if more will follow, but I hope that someday more guys from the States will come.”

Meanwhile, according to Kyodo News, Hawks GM Sugihiko Mikasa denied reports from the United States that Stewart would be able to make use of the posting system to enter MLB prior to the conclusion of his six-year-contract.

Posting Stewart would pose a problem for the Hawks, who have denied the request of their best pitcher, Kodai Senga, to make use of the posting system.

Boras exaggerates but ain’t wrong

On Thursday in Newport Beach, California, agent Scott Boras described Nippon Professional Baseball as Major League Baseball’s developmental opposite — an environment where minor leaguers get special attention and focus in a nurturing environment that puts the North American minors to shame.

In some ways he was right and some ways he was overstating the case. The SoftBank Hawks — whom pitcher Carter Stewart has signed with — fit this description, but they are far from the norm.

SoftBank isn’t the same as NPB

The Hawks are unusual in Japan, the only one of Japan’s 12 pro clubs to even consider the possibility that their team could evolve into being best in the world. But while Boras talked about how advanced the development system in Japan is, he was really talking about SoftBank.

Boras had it right when he praised the standard of living in NPB’s minor leagues. Every team’s players are fed well and earn real wages, allowing them to really focus on baseball. For players who are humble, serious and smart enough to know what they want, it is a superb environment to develop in.

At the press conference, Stewart spoke about how impressed he was with Shohei Ohtani. During his time with the Nippon Ham Fighters, Ohtani was absolutely devoted to developing his craft, constantly working and training and seldom venturing out of the dorm.

Japan is big on discipline

For some players, however, it can be a road to nowhere. Japanese coaches are inclined to demand orthodox playing styles, while most teams — SoftBank is currently one of the exceptions — do not instruct players in proper weight training or nutrition. Most teams follow the old school dogma that running is the best way to build bodies for baseball, that weight training is a Pandora’s box, and that the only necessary nutrition comes from eating a lot.

And while living conditions are safe compared to the squalor that passes for normal in the North American minor leagues, young Japanese minor leaguers live in spartan dormitories, with strict rules and curfews.

This is all normal stuff for Japanese kids, many of whom have been living in team dormitories since high school, and who are used to following every order from a coach to the letter. In such an environment, kids who lack confidence can find themselves trying to play in ways that match a coach’s philosophy but don’t get the most out of their individual skills.

The Orix BlueWave tried to do that to Ichiro Suzuki in 1992 and 1993, trying to turn him into a guy who only bunts and slaps the ball to the left side of the infield despite the fact that he was head-and-shoulders above every minor league hitter in Japan as an 18-year-old.

Those who embrace Japan can flourish

For those reasons alone, Japan is not easy. Add to those a language barrier and a baseball cultural barrier and it is harder. But those who are willing to take whatever comes and humble themselves to the task of learning, Japanese baseball offers things that minor league baseball cannot.

Japan can teach a lot simply by not being American in approach. Pitchers have to learn different ways to strike out hitters because there is a subclass of hitters who are only trying to foul pitches off until they can slap it to the left side of the infield. You can’t just bury a two-strike slider and get a swing and miss because most batters won’t bite. Adjusting to that is an education.

Boras mentioned all of Japan’s current major league starting pitchers. Not all have established themselves as huge stars, but they have one thing in common. They all locate their secondary pitches well and all field their positions extremely well. Those things are considered basics in Japan. Stewart will do more PFP (pitchers fielding practice) in four months this year with SoftBank than he’d do in four years in the North American minors. Becoming accustomed to the preparation demanded here is different, and that too is an education.

Stewart said he recognized Japanese players’ passion for baseball and discipline. While some of that an artifact of an authoritarian system, baseball here is not so different from baseball anywhere else. Respectful players who are passionate about learning will find coaches who are passionate about teaching. And because the focus of the game here is a little different, a little more small ball than in the States, there are things to learn here that coaches won’t teach you back home.

Those differences are an education.

But Japan isn’t a baseball superpower

The way Boras spoke about NPB’s development prowess, one would expect to see Japanese talent overrunning MLB. But it ain’t happening.

A small measure of the reason for that can be laid at NPB’s doorstep — particularly the historical hesitation to teach players weight training and proper nutrition. But the real culprit is an amateur system that wipes out the best players at an early age through injury and authoritarian training methods.

Elementary and junior high school pitchers throw excessively until their arms are damaged beyond repair by the time they reach high school. A large number of Japan’s best pro arms don’t take up pitching until late in high school or university.

A lot of kids are also burned out by the excessive year-round practice and the endless running. Rui Hachimura, who is expected to go high in the next NBA draft, loved baseball as a boy growing up in Toyama Prefecture, but the mind-numbing soul-sapping practice that is considered proper by old-school coaches drove him away.

A lot of Japanese pro pitchers still throw marathon bullpens, because that is what they are accustomed to. However, few pro teams now think it is a practice that leads to improved pitching.

Japanese pro baseball gets players who were not the best athletes of their elementary and junior high school teams because those kids are culled from the herd by antiquated practices. But it is doing much better with the players it gets than it did two decades ago.

Boras on NPB signing U.S. amateurs

This is a transcript of the chat with Scott Boras at the 2018 winter meetings in Las Vegas, when the nature of MLB’s signing bonus pools was screaming for a market correction from a strong rival league — enter NPB, and the SoftBank Hawks. Note the remarkable transformation that has come over Boras’ stance on the possibility of a U.S. amateur entering MLB as an international free agent since December.

–With the CBA and penny-pinching by MLB, is Japan an option? Have you talked to Japanese teams about amateurs?

“We have a number of players with Japanese teams. Of course, they’re limited to four per roster, so that part makes it a little bit more resigned as to what they do with prominent…”

“They have scouting teams and they are involved, but you would like to see it greater involved than what it is. We have had some very positive impacts. Japanese baseball is an extraordinary brand of baseball. It’s really good. It’s got good audiences. A number of those teams draw 2-1/2 million people.”

–I ask that because of the signing bonus pools depressing the prices for amateurs, there are so many…

“…No. I think it’s very wise for Japanese teams to take a look at that and take advantage of it. I think they should.”

–Have you got a response from Japanese teams about amateurs?

“I think it’s something that if they look at it and see the kind of value in that kind of player, you can go forward.”

–The NPB teams have been telling me about two-year deals so a player could re-enter the MLB draft or a five-year deal so he can enter MLB as a free agent.

“One of the real problems with signing with a Japanese team is that when a player leaves Japan, he comes back here, he’s still subject to the draft.”

–Even if he’s a six-year pro?

“If you’re in Japan and you’ve never signed here (in the States), then you’re still subject to the draft. That rule kind of restricts that.”

Scott Boras on the subject of amateurs signing in Japan. Dec. 13, 2018

6 things to know about NPB

With 19-year-old prospect Carter Stewart reportedly days away from signing with the SoftBank Hawks of Japan’s Pacific League, here are six things you might want to know:

This is MLB’s doing

By assigning maximum dollar amounts to draft picks in its amateur draft, MLB further reduced the rights amateurs have to sell their talent for a fair value. The draft already hampers this, by forcing amateurs to negotiate with only one team. But the signing bonus pools, introduced in 2012, and the decrepit status of minor league baseball, has now made Japan a viable alternative for the right candidate.

Nippon Professional Baseball teams, like those in the majors, are limited to how much they can pay amateurs acquired through the draft process, and these limits are much lower. While players used to receive millions of dollars under the table, those days appear to be over and the maximums of a 100 million yen ($905,000) signing bonus and 15 million yen ($136,000) first-year salary.

However, because there are no spending restraints on foreign talent, the Hawks could ostensibly spend as much as they like on foreign professionals or amateurs.

NPB recognizes 2 kinds of players: domestic and foreign

Domestic players — those who have played amateur ball and lived in Japan for specified periods of time, and all Japanese citizens — can only enter NPB after registering for and being selected in the October amateur draft. Japanese citizens such as Micheal Nakamura, Kazuhito Tadano and Mac Suzuki who turned pro in the States, entered NPB through its “amateur draft.”

Foreigners are everyone else, and different rules apply to them. For one thing, foreign players without nine years of first-team service time are subject to a quota. Each team can have only four foreign players on its active roster with a maximum of three position players or three pitchers.

This is not the first effort by an amateur’s agent

International directors of more than one NPB team have said they are occasionally approached by agents looking to use their clubs as developmental staging areas where players can go for a year or two to sharpen their skills and raise their profiles in MLB’s amateur draft.

One NPB executive, however, said such offers raise “ethical questions.”

A six-year deal, like the one currently being reported for Stewart, is a new approach, however. This brings us to the next point.

NPB only permits 1-year contracts

Wait a second. How could Carter Stewart sign for six years when NPB doesn’t recognize multiyear deals? The answer is that multiyear contracts are essentially personal service contracts between player and team that specify the nature of the official annual contracts signed and submitted to NPB.

Because these contracts are essentially backroom deals, they are often poorly reported. Teams and players can tell the media whatever figures they want to regardless of the contract’s actual terms.

So a six-year deal with a foreign player would be a document specifying the nature of six, one-year deals.

Japanese players can wait forever to play in MLB

NPB teams can reserve a domestic player until he has accumulated enough service time in the Central or Pacific leagues to file for free agency.

Those drafted out of high school are eligible for domestic free agency after eight years, those drafted after playing at a higher level, JC, university, corporate league ball and so on, can move to a different NPB team after seven years. But to go abroad requires nine years of service time.

That’s one reason why the posting system was created. Teams losing top players as domestic free agents can get some measure of compensation. Teams losing players to MLB get nothing.

Foreign players generally don’t need to be posted

Although a handful of foreign players have been posted, they generally work on one-, two- or three-year deals and just wait until those deals end and they can move to the U.S. as free agents — provided they are not considered amateurs by MLB rules.

This is a big point if you are Carter Stewart.

In December, three agents — including Stewarts’ agent Scott Boras — said that all U.S. and Canadian citizens are subject to MLB’s amateur draft regardless of their overseas experience.

  • Here is the transcript an audio of my chat with Boras from Dec. 13, 2018.

That is true, but the same rules stipulate that foreign residents are considered international players and international professionals if they are at least 25 years old with six years as a professional in a “league recognized by Major League Baseball” — which may or may not include Japan’s Eastern and Western leagues, the latter which contains the Hawks’ top farm team.

The SoftBank Hawks have never posted a player, have said they never will, and will not have to start with Stewart. Provided he establishes residence in Japan, which is not that hard, Stewart will have the option of morphing into an international professional and signing with the MLB team of his choosing as a free agent.

A source has told me the Hawks’ goal is for Stewart to thrive and prosper in Japan — so much so that he never wants to leave. This is not so far-fetched as it seems. A lot of players come here with the plan of polishing their skills enough to reboot their careers in America. Some do that, but many who do also find Japan addictive and hard to leave.

But there’s always a 1st time…

With Jeff Passan telling me that posting is part of the deal, it occurred to me that while posting is in no way obligatory, it might be a slick move.

Let’s say the Hawks sign Stewart to a year longer than he needs to establish himself as an international free agent. At the conclusion of his penultimate season, SoftBank could post him — assuming MLB has not opted to exchange dollars in its posting agreement with NPB to peanuts by then. If he becomes a star in Japan, the Hawks would receive a portion equal to around 15 percent of his first MLB deal.

Of course that assumes the Hawks are willing to set that precedent while telling their host of Japanese players (read Kodai Senga) to go to hell and wait.

Slow and steady for Kikuchi

Upon arriving at Narita Airport on Sunday, new Mariners lefty Yusei Kikuchi told reporters he wanted to be ready to throw at full power from the start of spring training.

We’ll see how that plays out, since major league spring training can be a daunting mental challenge for Japanese players used to starting on Feb. 1, going through long, all-day workouts for four or five days straight and then getting a day to recover.

Everyone who goes now knows what’s coming, but knowing and feeling in your bones that an unfamiliar workout pace is right for you are two radically different things.

That aside, the interesting take from Kikuchi’s media availability at the airport was his belief that last May’s shoulder stiffness was due to his not throwing until January. For that reason, Kikuchi resumed playing catch in December and was working out in the States while negotiations were going on with his agent.

“Ahead of last season, I began throwing in January, and was forced to pick up the pace and that led to my problem,” he said. “I want to do it gradually this year, so I will be fit enough to throw at full strength in camp.”

Read the full story on Kyodo News HERE.