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THE HOT CORNER: The art of dodging the draft

by Jim Allen (Jul 9, 2009)

Most players from the Americas come here for the opportunity to get regular playing time. Some also come for the cultural experience and some come just for the money.

One can't look into men's hearts and know how large this latter group is. Yet every time a cross-cultural miscommunication triggers some incident, the foreign party will often receive the unwanted label of "only in Japan for the money."

It's always a tough call, who is and who isn't taking Japanese baseball for granted. But leave it to infamous U.S. agent Scott Boras to talk about bringing a player here purely and simply for the money.

OK. Nothing is pure and simple. This is also a question about individual rights.

Boras has a superbly talented amateur client, whose negotiating power is severely limited by Major League Baseball's collusive requirement that he only negotiate with the team that drafted him. Stephen Strasburg may only deal with the Washington Nationals, who made the San Diego State University pitcher the first pick in MLB's June 9 draft.

Because the draft does not extend to players outside the United States or Canada or players who have already played professionally, Boras has considered taking Strasburg to Japan, establishing him here and forcing MLB to declare him a free agent, according to a recent report in The Washington Post.

Strasburg could live here and establish residency--a tricky prospect for someone who ostensibly intends to play in the majors--or he could turn pro in Japan, provided a Japanese club would take him.

"This guy is good, but he hasn't adjusted to Japan," Toshimasa Shimada, the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters' director of baseball operations, told The Hot Corner on Tuesday.

"There are major leaguers who can't make the adjustments here. He [Strasburg] hasn't even adjusted to pro baseball over there."

Shimada said Strasburg's case parallels that of Junichi Tazawa, the first blue-chip amateur to shun Nippon Professional Baseball's draft and sign with an MLB team.

Tazawa got a fat contract last winter to join the Boston Red Sox, with whom he ostensibly wants to have a career.

The pursuit of a first-rate Japanese amateur by MLB clubs threw NPB bosses into an uproar, claiming the Americans were breaking an unwritten gentlemen's agreement not to poach each other's domestic amateur prospects.

Shimada said it would be difficult for an NPB club that had joined the chorus of outrage against MLB poaching to turn around and sign Strasburg.

The Fighters executive said he didn't particularly care at the time whether or not Tazawa went to the States. His concern was that more and more players might take that road.

Why would they want to do that?

One reason might just be choice.

Tazawa was able to choose the club he thought was the best fit for him. A Japanese who aspires to take his game to the highest levels here has to negotiate with the team assigned to him through NPB's draft. By going to America, he could choose from among different options.

Draft apologists say the system is necessary to maintain competitive balance, which it has. But its purpose from Day 1 was to cheat amateurs of the right to sell their own services to the highest bidder.

In most markets, this would be considered contemptible. It's an indictment of the baseball business that depriving people of their rights is standard operating procedure in MLB and NPB and acceptable to the fans.

Boras claims Strasburg is worth 50 million dollars now, but it's his job to sell high. In a free market, Strasburg is worth as much as someone is willing to pay for him--an idea that irks many major leaguers who slaved their way up to hefty contracts through years of apprenticeship in the minors and majors.

In his June 5 column, ESPN.com's Jayson Stark gave voice to these players' sense of injustice. Stark proposes an even-more restrictive system: Cap the money first-year players can receive--the way they do in Japan.

Again, this assumes it is OK to deprive individuals of their rights if it benefits the owners of sports teams. At what point does it become wrong?


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