Touch base It’s a monthly column that highlights exciting happenings in baseball beyond the confines of MLB – from the International League to amateur teams and everything in between. This month’s column explores international free agent updates, how the NPB posting system works, the problems in the Venezuelan Winter League and a preview of what’s to come with the World Baseball Classic.
A fast-paced movement between Nippon Professional Baseball, Japan’s top league, and Major League Baseball, regional teams have spent more than $180 million on major players this month, with more to come. And maybe not by chance.
The Boston Red Sox added outfielder Masataka Yoshida to the NPB, adding a five-year, $90 million contract, and Boston paid Yoshida’s posting team, the Oryx Buffaloes, $15.4 million. The New York Mets then signed right-hander Kodai Senga to a five-year, $75 million contract. Senga’s deal did not include a posting fee because he played the nine seasons in NPB needed to get out of the league and was a free and clear free agent.
Any day now, flamethrower Shintaro Fujinami will likely sign in the MLB, with several teams reportedly chasing the right-hander, including the Arizona Diamondbacks, San Francisco Giants and Red Sox. Like Yoshida, his signing will require the team to pay the Hanshin Tigers.
Three famous Japanese signings stand as a bonanza in one summer. Even before Fujinami’s signing, this is the most expensive NPB player has ever entered MLB in one season, surpassing 2015, when Kenta Mada signed an incentive-heavy eight-year deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers that sent a $20 million payday to the Hiroshima Toyo Carp and Byung-Ho Park to Minnesota. The Twins’ four-year, $16 million contract included nearly $13 million for the then-Nexon Warriors.
If Fujinam signs with an MLB team, that would make three significant additions — and the number of Japanese players in MLB could jump 60 percent. As of last month, there are five active Japanese players in MLB, with Los Angeles Angels superstar Shohei Otani, along with Yu Darvish (San Diego Padres), Kenta Mada (Twins), Yusei Kikuchi (Toronto Blue Jays) and Seiya Suzuki. (Chicago Cubs)
So why the sudden rush? Several factors seem to be at play.
A year ago, MLB was locked in a fight with the players’ union over a collective bargaining agreement that was not resolved until March. At that time, NPB was preparing for opening day. The major leagues in Korea and Taiwan were also well into their spring training, so the likelihood of MLB waiting to finalize a new CBA was very high. Two players posted to MLB last summer but did not sign with a team. Suzuki was the only player to do so, but like many free agents last summer, he probably got a good sense of the demand in the market before the deadline.
Another reason: MLB owners appear to be on a spending spree, with nearly $3 billion committed in free agency this summer. The Red Sox aren’t upset about spending more than $100 million on the still-unproven Yoshida. The Mets jumped at paying Senga — but then again, they’re the most free-wheeling pitchers in the majors right now.
But as teams emerged from pandemic shutdowns two years ago, many owners and baseball operations executives talked about retirements on player payroll budgets as they try to make up for a largely lost season in 2020. It is lost for many groups.
Of course, some risks remain. Three other Japanese players who played in the MLB last year are now free agents, including former Tampa Bay Rays, Los Angeles Dodgers and Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Yoshi Tsutsugo.
The Red Sox have been criticized for paying the market’s asking price for Yoshida, with some analysts questioning whether the power will play out in North America. But what’s wrong with a team as long as it doesn’t hit its head against the hard and self-administered salary cap? It’s not your money to lose.
Maybe Yoshida won’t hit for the same power numbers this season, hitting 21 homers in NPB last year. Suzuki came to the Cubs after hitting 38 homers for the Carps in 2021, then hitting 14 for Chicago last year. But even then, Yoshida has a superior eye at the plate. He slashed .335/.447/.561 last season and walked more than he hit in each of the past four seasons. Adam Jones called him “the Japanese Juan Soto” for a reason.
Could it be one more reason to move from NPB to MLB? League Change is reported. This season, the rules allow for a 30-day to 45-player signing window, so the lone designated hitter, Fujinama, has until Jan. 20 to work out a contract with an MLB team.
Let’s remember some men
The last major influx of players from Japan to MLB came in the early days. In the two years since 2002, two NPB Hall of Fame finalists, Hideki Matsui and Shingo Takatsu, have signed with the New York Yankees and Chicago White Sox, respectively. Along with them, infielder Kaz Matsui went to the Mets, right-hander Akinori Otsuka landed with the Padres, outfielder So Taguchi went to the St. Louis Cardinals and lefty Kazuhisa Ishii signed with the Dodgers.
How does the posting system work?
After MLB reached an agreement with NPB in 1998, Hideo Nomo left NPB after a difficult situation in signing with the Dodgers. (MLB reached a similar agreement with the KBO league in 2012). In short, Nomo faked retirement to get out of his NPB contract, then suddenly came back with Los Angeles.
NPB wanted to protect the league from signing all their best players. And it worked. The posting system forced Ichiro Suzuki to wait until 2000 to sign with the Seattle Mariners. Suzuki was one of the players who made the leap following the interleague deal.
NPB players can post until the end of December 5th. If an MLB team wants to sign a posted player, they owe the current team a percentage of the contract. That percentage has changed over time as rules have changed, and now follows a complicated system of steps based on how much a player earns with a new MLB team.
Of course, other arrangements can be made. Munetaka Murakami, the 22-year-old Swallows slugger who broke Sadaharu Oh’s single-season homer record with 56 last season, has signed a new three-year contract that includes a postseason opt-out. It was stipulated in the contract that Murakami would be posted to MLB after the 2025 season. Normally, it would have had to wait until after the 2027 season.
So why would NPB agree to let one of their best players leave? They don’t unless the player asks for a move, and if the player performs well over time, the team agrees as a reward. And of course that group gets a modest posting fee. Ken Rosenthal talked about this in a recent episode. The athletics Baseball Show.
Rumble in VWL
In case you somehow missed it, this is what happened in the Venezuelan Winter League last month:
Luego de que Castro conectara su TERCER quadrangular del juego sucedió en esto.
🤷🏻♂️ https://t.co/kNpecgLccQ pic.twitter.com/YGaZlU4K32
— Tiburones Report (@TiburonesReport) November 20, 2022
Some background: That home run hitter Carlos Castro of Tiburones de la Guerra, a former Atlanta Braves outfielder, played for the Kentucky Gnome and Long Island Ducks in independent ball last season. Nice looking swing. Slow walks and bat flips don’t seem so outrageous in the grand scheme of things. But he is looking down on the opposite Caribes de Anzoategui.
So we see former New York Mets outfielder Asdrubal Cabrera now playing for the Caribes, clothing line Castro to the dirt. The fact that players from both teams came out on the field caused a real controversy.
That’s not all. At one point, Peter Edurai Ramos reacted with more than a fiasco.
Tiburones de la Guaira’s RHP Edurai Ramos threw the ball, hitting Caribes de Anzoategui’s Learvis Brereto, causing a hematoma following Asdrubal Cabrera’s attack on Carlos Castro in the Venezuela Winter League. pic.twitter.com/wIwKw4KiPu
— Hector Gomez (@hgomez27) November 21, 2022
When the fire was finally extinguished, Cabrera was suspended for 35 games in the league and Ramos was given a 40-game suspension. Both have expired.
Cabrera certainly agrees with the idea of flipping the bat. In the year In 2016, he hit a game-winning three-run homer in the 11th inning for the Mets, hitting a two-handed flyout.
Interesting twist: That Cabrera homer for the Mets in 2016? He hit the aforementioned Ramos.
A new favorite LIDOM thing that I’m somehow only now noticing is Estrelas manager Fernando Tatis Sr.’s custom office chair (??) for maximum trash comfort. pic.twitter.com/OH07K7kU02
— Cespedes Family BBQ (@CespedesBBQ) December 12, 2022
how do you say
If you end up at a holiday party barred by an obnoxious stranger, there’s a Spanish baseball that might come in handy. Just as baseball phrases have crossed over into the common English language — like “home run” means success or “hit” means failure — so has a certain Spanish phrase.
Nay Pichas, Nay Cachas, Nay Dejas Batear.
It literally means “no swag, no catch, no bat” but refers to a schlub who is good for nobody. Kind of like Charlie Brown. Enjoy on Slack if you want.
The World Baseball Classic is coming soon
The first games are scheduled to begin in Taiwan on March 8. The group consists of Cuba, Chinese Taipei, Panama, the Netherlands and Italy. While we’re waiting for more teams to announce their rosters, Team USA is filling up fast. Former Yomiuri Giants shortstop and current St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Myles Mikolas is among the most recent commits.
We’ll have more on the WBC. The athletics Ahead, with a big update on the Winter League in the coming days.
Is there anything you’d like to see covered in future columns? Let us know in the comments below. Your recent suggestions are greatly appreciated and certainly noted.
(Top photo of Kodai Senga in 2020: Kyodo via Associated Press)