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Where EAST meets the Northwest


Junichi Tazawa. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

Carter Stewart. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

DRAFT DODGERS. In 2008, Japanese pitcher Junichi Tazawa made history, becoming the first top-level prospect to skip the Japanese amateur draft so he could play for Major League Baseball (MLB). As a result, MLB and Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) revised their rules to prevent another player from doing that again. In May, American pitcher Carter Stewart did the opposite, skipping the MLB amateur draft to play in NPB. Just as Tazawa did, Stewart could change the Japanese-American player market for years to come.

From The Asian Reporter, V29, #11 (June 3, 2019), page 7.

American version of Junichi Tazawa to pitch in Japan

By Mike Street

Special to The Asian Reporter

In 2008, Japanese pitcher Junichi Tazawa made history, becoming the first top-level prospect to skip the Japanese amateur draft so he could play for Major League Baseball (MLB). As a result, MLB and Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) revised their rules to prevent another player from doing that again.

In May, American pitcher Carter Stewart did the opposite, skipping the MLB amateur draft to play in NPB. Just as Tazawa did, Stewart could change the Japanese-American player market for years to come.

The similarities between Stewart’s and Tazawa’s situations are striking. Both were considered top prospects, though Tazawa was expected to be the top overall pick in Japan’s 2008 amateur draft, while Stewart was not quite at the top of most prospect lists.

Stewart had actually been drafted last year by the Atlanta Braves out of high school. He was chosen eighth overall, but Atlanta grew concerned about Stewart’s wrist injury and cut its offer in half. Instead of signing, Stewart chose to pitch for a junior college and enter this year’s draft, where he’d been expected to go somewhere in the second round. Tazawa, on the other hand, had never been drafted but asked that no NPB team draft him; all the teams complied with his request.

Both Tazawa and Stewart made their move so they could play for an MLB team sooner. At the time, NPB rules meant that Tazawa would have two options. One would have been to hope that his team would post him and allow an MLB team to bid on his services. But Tazawa would have had no control over that, and it might never have happened.

His other option was to spend nine seasons with an NPB team and become a free agent after his best years were behind him. Had he gone that route, Tazawa would not have been eligible for free agency until 2018.

In hindsight, 2018 would have been well past his prime, and he might never have played in MLB. Tazawa’s last good year was 2016, and he’s struggled to stay in the majors since. He’s currently in the Cubs minor-league system hoping for another shot at the big leagues.

Had Stewart signed with an MLB team after being drafted, he would have faced a similarly long wait until free agency. Jeff Passan of ESPN presented a great analysis of Stewart’s likely MLB path under the current salary rules for new players.

According to Passan, Stewart’s best-case scenario would have put him in the majors by 2022, after working his way up through the minors. MLB salary restrictions would have kept Stewart under team control until 2028, at which point Passan estimates Stewart’s total career earnings would have been about $4 million.

Instead, Stewart has already signed a $7-million, six-year deal with NPB’s Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks. The rules governing NPB and MLB, which were changed because of Tazawa, allow him to become a free agent after only six seasons. Or he could get posted before then and reach MLB even sooner.

If he’s not posted, Stewart will become a free agent three years sooner and make $3 million more in Japan than he would have by entering MLB via the draft. In the meantime, he will likely reach the Japanese major-league level in his first season. This means he’ll face better hitters sooner, hopefully making him a better pitcher by the time he becomes a free agent.

Stewart’s case highlights the differences between the rules for NPB and MLB salaries and drafts, as well as the penalties for avoiding the draft. After Tazawa, NPB changed its rules. Now, any Japanese player who skips their draft can’t play in NPB until he hasn’t played in MLB for two to three years. That restriction, meaning a player would effectively lose those years from his career, is so huge that no other player has followed in Tazawa’s footsteps.

No such rule exists for players who skip the MLB draft. That’s because such a move was previously considered unthinkable. But Stewart’s agent, Scott Boras, has been complaining about the way MLB sets its amateur draft bonuses. He encouraged Stewart to sign with the Hawks in part to prove his point.

Boras’s complaint focuses on the complex rules governing the MLB amateur draft. Through a complex calculation, each MLB team is told how much money it can spend in the draft. That amount is broken down by draft pick, called a "slot bonus," giving them a recommended bid for each draft spot. Teams are penalized for exceeding the total amount they are allocated.

Last season, Stewart and the Braves couldn’t reach terms primarily because the slot bonus for the eighth overall pick was supposed to be $4.98 million. Atlanta offered Stewart only $2 million. Boras wants this system changed. This would benefit the players but also agents like Boras, whose income is restricted by their clients’ income.

Though Stewart’s decision is about the money, there are a lot of other factors to consider. Stewart doesn’t have Asian heritage and doesn’t speak Japanese. He will have to adjust to a league dominated by Japanese players — since each NPB team is only allowed to have four foreign players — in an unfamiliar country.

In addition to differences in language and culture, Stewart faces differences on the field. In NPB, the stadiums are smaller, and many of them use turf instead of grass. The strategy, strike zone, and workouts are all different in NPB.

So there are a lot of ways for Stewart to fail. But if he succeeds, he will forever change the flow of players from Japan. Rules will change just as they did after Tazawa skipped the NPB draft.

If Boras gets his way, MLB draft rules will change or eliminate the slot bonus system, and fewer players will follow Stewart. But other changes could happen instead. NPB could allow more foreign players on team rosters to encourage others to follow Stewart. Or maybe MLB and NPB might agree on an international draft of players in any country.

Regardless of how or when the rules change, the Japanese and American baseball leagues are moving closer and closer together. We are watching the market shift as traffic between the two leagues increases.

NPB is no longer seen as an incompatible foreign league; it’s now seen as a league where players can develop before coming to MLB. Asian players in MLB may become even more common, as common as it’s become for MLB players to take their talents to NPB. For Asian-American sports fans, that idea is incredibly exciting.

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