This offseason promises to be one of international intrigue.
In the coming months, some high-priced talent could well be leaving these shores to stake their claims in Major League Baseball, among them Nippon-Ham Fighters ace Yu Darvish, Sawamura Award-winning pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma of the Rakuten Eagles, Hanshin Tigers closer Kyuji Fujikawa and perennial All-Star and Yakult Swallows leadoff man supreme Norichika Aoki.
While it is highly unlikely that all of these NPB stars will wind up stateside next season, don't be surprised if one or two of them leave the nest.
And, if they do go, the mechanism by which they will take flight will be the "posting system," a controversial yet simple tool currently in place to facilitate player transfers between NPB and MLB.
Back in 1998, Shigeyoshi Ino, the general manager of the Orix BlueWave, drew up a proposal aimed at stemming the potential talent drain from Japanese baseball to the major leagues, or at least enable NPB ballclubs to profit from their losses.
Ino came up with the posting system, essentially an anonymous lottery that would allow Japanese players to move to MLB before they reached free agency while at the same time enriching the clubs who had drafted and often nurtured these players.
(It currently takes Japanese players nine years of NPB service to reach international free-agency status.)
The system was put in place after agent Don Nomura took Kintetsu Buffaloes pitcher Hideo Nomo to the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1994, exploiting a loophole in the MLB-NPB Working Agreement by having Nomo "retire" from Japanese baseball.
The Dodgers acquired a star player who would go on to become the National League Rookie of the Year while the Buffaloes were left snorting from their nostrils at having lost one of their top pitchers with nothing to show for it.
Nomura clients were also involved in two more cases that would directly result in the Working Agreement being overhauled. In 1997, the Chiba Lotte Marines and San Diego Padres worked out a deal for Marines flamethrower Hideki Irabu. However, the iron-willed Irabu vowed that he would only play for the New York Yankees. After much acrimony and back-and-forth negotiation, the Padres eventually worked out a trade with the Yankees, a move the Bronx Bombers likely rue to this day.
The final straw came the following year, when a young Dominican named Alfonso Soriano wanted out of what he perceived as an extremely restrictive--and low-paying--contract with the Hiroshima Carp. He turned to--who else?--Don Nomura, who once again worked the back channels and tried to free Soriano from his Carp deal.
MLB commissioner Bud Selig would eventually rule Soriano a free agent and he would go on to sign with the Yankees, later becoming one of Major League Baseball's few "40-40" men (40 home runs and 40 steals in a season, just the fourth player to do so after Jose Canseco, Barry Bonds and Alex Rodriguez).
And, once again, the Carp, whose faces were as red as their ballcaps, felt jilted, losing a future MLB All-Star for a whole lot of nothing in return.
Clearly, something had to be done.
The solution has been Ino's posting system, which Selig and his NPB counterpart at the time, Hiromori Kawashima, signed off on in 1998. While not a perfect solution by any means, it has been largely effective and one of its most attractive features is its simplicity.
Under the system, a player contracted to an NPB team, who wishes to move to the major leagues prior to reaching free agency, can request that his Japanese club post him. If--and that's a big "if"--his NPB club agrees, the MLB Commissioner's Office is informed and a "silent auction" is held.
Any major-league club wishing to attain the posted player's exclusive negotiating rights then submits a sealed bid through the MLB Commissioner's Office. Once the secret bids have been opened, the player's NPB team is then told the top bid amount, but not which MLB club made the highest offer.
If the NPB team agrees to the posting fee, the MLB club that made the winning bid is revealed and that club then has 30 days to work out a deal with the player, which is separate from the posting fee.
If the two sides can reach a deal, then the NPB club is paid the entire posting fee, which have so far ranged anywhere from $300,000 (25 million yen) up to the staggering $51.1 million the Boston Red Sox paid the Seibu Lions in 2006 for the negotiating rights to right-hander Daisuke Matsuzaka.
If the NPB club is not satisfied with the bid amount, or if no deal can be worked out between the player and the bid-winning MLB team, or if no MLB teams bid on the player, then his NPB club retains his rights.
"It (the posting system) restored some order to the game and repaired relations between the American and Japanese baseball commissioner's offices, which had seriously deteriorated in the wake of the Nomo defection and the Irabu trade to San Diego," said author Robert Whiting, who has penned several best-selling books on Japanese baseball. "So I suppose it has worked reasonably well."
Bobby Valentine, a former MLB and NPB manager and now a baseball analyst for ESPN, seems to agree, provided everything remains above-board.
"If it's really a closed bid, it seems like a decent system," Valentine said. "As long as there are honorable people dealing with it, and it seems like they are, it's a way for an (NPB) team to recover some of the investment they put into a player. In theory, I don't think it's a bad system."