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.