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
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
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
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
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
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
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