The kotatsu league: Tigers sign minor league righty Gunkel
Alex Ramirez back in the day before he was a two-time MVP and the first foreight-registered player with 2,000 hits in NPB>

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.

Jim Allen

sports editor for a wire service in Tokyo

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