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Rob Smaal

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The pros and cons

by Rob Smaal (Oct 1, 2010)

While no one system is likely to be perfect, the current NPB-MLB posting process has certainly had its share of detractors over the years.

One obvious flaw would be that the posted player really has no say over which team he plays for. Under the current setup, whichever MLB club bids the most for a player's negotiating rights is the team he must sign with if he wants to play in the "the Show."

If the player absolutely does not wish to play for that club, or if no subsequent deal on a contract can be reached, the player returns to his NPB club and must repeat the whole process the following year if he wishes to try again. Or he can wait until he becomes a free agent, which requires nine years of NPB service.

"The problem is that the player has no right to say where he wants to go, it's strictly based on club approval," said agent Don Nomura, the man who engineered Hideo Nomo's infamous departure to MLB in 1994. "If a club doesn't approve (the posting request), the player can be held in reserve almost forever. (NPB) teams can send guys down one day before they reach the nine years (of service time) required for free agency. They have the rules written for their own benefit--there's no industry like baseball where the employer can totally control one's freedom. The players' association in Japan hasn't done much to change the rules to benefit the player."

Another disadvantage to the player is that once an MLB club has acquired his negotiating rights, all effective competition for his services is over. Whereas a free agent can field offers from a variety of teams, thereby driving his value up, under the posting system a player can only negotiate with one club, nullifying any bidding wars that can benefit top talent in an open market.

A further consequence of the system is that after a club shells out more than $50 million (4.1 billion yen), as in the case of Boston Red Sox pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka, just for the rights to negotiate with a player, then it might compel that team to try to recoup some of those costs by low-balling him on his contract. This issue came up in Dice-K's case, although hardball-playing agent Scott Boras still landed his client a six-year, $52 million package, pushing the Red Sox's total investment in the player to more than $100 million.

"Every club has a budget to work within and those posting fees will affect the fair market value of the player," pointed out Nomura, whose tactics in large part led to the MLB-NPB Working Agreement being revised in 1998 with the introduction of the posting system. "The public always see the player as being greedy, but let's think about who makes all the money using the player, and who can afford to pay such high salaries."

The Yankees can. In 2006, they got stung when they threw in a winning bid of just over $26 million for the negotiating rights to Hanshin Tigers starter Kei Igawa, a move seen largely as a response to losing out on the Matsuzaka sweepstakes to the archrival Red Sox. The Yankees subsequently signed Igawa to a five-year $20 million deal, the vast majority of which has been spent in the minor leagues.

This case only goes to show that under the current system, risks are inherent--for the clubs bidding on the players, the teams posting the players, and the players themselves.

"Nowadays, many Japanese players are failing in the U.S., so the value (of Japanese ballplayers) is likely going down," said Shinichi Goto, a veteran baseball beat writer who has covered the game on both sides of the Pacific. "This makes it a difficult decision for MLB teams when it comes to how much to bid in the posting system. It also makes it difficult for Japanese teams to know when--or if--to post players."

That question obviously becomes more pertinent the closer a player gets to achieving free agency: Post him now or risk getting nothing in return.

Robert Whiting, the best-selling author of "You Gotta Have Wa" and several other books on Japanese baseball, says the buyer should beware--and he should also do his homework.

"There should have been a clause that required MLB executives to actually take a close look at some of those players they paid high posting fees to get rather than just assuming that good stats in Japan would mean success in the U.S.," Whiting observed. "Perhaps they have already learned their lesson."

But the system is not quite so flawed in everyone's eyes. A prime example of a deal that worked out well for both sides was the posting of Ichiro by the Orix BlueWave in 2000. The Seattle Mariners secured Ichiro's bidding rights for a little over $13 million, which was a nice cash infusion for his NPB club back then. The M's promptly inked Ichiro to a three-year deal for $14 million, a steal if you look at the revenue his record-setting accomplishments have generated for the franchise.

Two Japanese players who were asked about the posting system--infielders Kenta Kurihara of the Hiroshima Carp and Hiroyasu Tanaka of the Yakult Swallows--both said they were glad so see a vehicle in place that allows players to test the MLB waters while still in their prime, as opposed to waiting nine seasons.

"These days, more and more players are coming back to NPB after playing in the majors," said Tanaka, referring to cases like pitcher Kaz Ishii, catcher Kenji Jojima and infielder Tadahito Iguchi. "That makes it more desirable to try (when you are younger). It takes a long time to become a free agent here so the posting system allows you to get to MLB quicker. Some players can finish their careers over there, but others might want to come back to Japan. If you wait nine years to try and it doesn't work out, it might be tough to get a job back here."

Love it or hate it, it is what it is, and posting could be around for a while. For now, at least, MLB clubs will have to roll the dice and hope they come up with an Ichiro rather than an Igawa.

"I don't really think there's a 'best' system for the major-league teams or for the Japanese teams," said one top scout for an American League club. "Right now this is the system that I guess works best. There's advantages and disadvantages for both sides. Probably both sides would want a better system, but I don't know if there's a better system out there."


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