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Rob Smaal

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by Rob Smaal (Oct 2, 2010)

While it seems as if most parties agree that the best players in the world should have access to Major League Baseball, regardless of nationality, in the case of Japan the debate rages over what form that access should take.

While many young Latin American players, often from impoverished backgrounds, seek to improve their lives by getting drafted and signed by MLB clubs, Japanese ballplayers grow up with a thriving league operating in their own backyard.

Naturally, those running Nippon Professional Baseball have a vested interest in keeping much, if not all, of that talent on home soil.

After Hideo Nomo's high-profile defection to the major leagues in 1994, and the success that came with it, it was starting to become obvious to the NPB brass that something would have to be done to prevent a possible large-scale player exodus.

Hence the institution of the posting system in 1998. The silent auction would drastically limit the number of players heading to North America while allowing their Japanese clubs to cash in on any who did make the move west.

As examined in previous installments, the posting system is not without its faults--chief among them players having no say where they end up, essentially being sold to the highest bidder, and then being tied to a single team, restricting their earning potential.

Player agent Don Nomura rocked the Japanese baseball world in '94 when he exploited a loophole in the NPB-MLB Working Agreement, advising his client, star pitcher Nomo, to "retire" from the game here, freeing him up to join the Los Angeles Dodgers.

The posting system wasn't an option back then, and now that it is, Nomura would like to see some changes in it.

"For example, three teams, or even all the teams, that put in bids could earn the right to negotiate with the player and the player can choose up to three teams to negotiate with," suggested Nomura. "That would give a player some options. Also, the posting fee (paid to the NPB club to gain negotiating rights) should somehow be fixed so the players will be paid accordingly. Right now, a player can get tunneled through one team, even if it's not their first choice. Therefore, when a team acquires exclusive negotiating rights, it's either sign or come back to play in Japan one more year."

Nomura said he can see that day coming, when, for the first time, a Japanese player whose negotiating rights went to the highest MLB bidder will not agree to terms with that club.

"That has never happened before and it would be a shame to do so once a player desires to go to MLB," he said. "However, I won't be surprised if we see players not agreeing to deals and returning to play out (their careers) in Japan in the future."

This also raises the specter of MLB teams throwing in huge posting bids with little or no intention of subsequently signing the player simply to block another club (can you say, "Red Sox-Yankees rivalry?") from landing him.

When asked what changes would improve the system, a couple of experts suggested the best thing that could happen for Japanese players would be to reform the free-agent rules rather than tinker with the posting system.

"What I would like to see changed is the rule on international free agency," said Robert Whiting, author of "You Gotta Have Wa." "It should be lower than the present nine years. But, it's really up to the NPBPA to do something about it and I am not holding my breath."

Echoed former New York Mets and Chiba Lotte Marines skipper Bobby Valentine: "If you're talking about what's best for the player, what's fair for the player, it would be if he could become a free agent a little earlier in his career."

Valentine, however, also sees both sides of the picture. Having managed a Japanese club for seven years, he realizes that NPB teams have to protect their investments.

"When you're trying to figure out what's fair for both, if a player just wants to leave his Japanese team and go to another team, then I don't know that he should have the choice until he becomes a free agent," he said. "If you're posting a blind bid, then all the (MLB) teams that are interested are going to give their highest bid and the (NPB) team can recover some of their investment."

MLB teams also see the necessity of such a system, although they aren't happy about it.

"Obviously it would be more of an advantage to us (MLB clubs) not to have it at all, but then at the same time the Japanese clubs would be at a disadvantage because they'd lose their top players without getting any sort of compensation," said a scout for an American League club.

For its part, NPB claims that while there are no major changes planned, the posting system is a constant work-in-progress.

Nobby Ito, NPB's director of baseball operations, has been directly involved in each of the nearly 20 posting cases over the past 12 years. He acknowledges that there have been a few problems in the past but he also takes pains to point out that the current relationship between MLB and NPB is extremely healthy.

"We have had many posting transactions between NPB and MLB over the years and I would say that 80 percent of them have been amicable with no trouble," Ito said. "In some cases there have been disagreements with agents or contract disputes. In each case or each dispute, we communicate with MLB officials.

"We have meetings and dialogue," he continued. "This has been ongoing for the last 12 years. Things change in a relationship over the years, just as they do between a husband and a wife. In some cases, if a problem has arisen--we have exchanged ideas and dialogue to make it better, usually small changes in the language of the posting agreement. But the basic idea has been the same for the past 12 years.

"Our relationship (with MLB) right now is very good and we can talk about incidents and disputes immediately. The operation of the system is constantly being monitored by both sides."

This offseason, that system will likely be put to the test once again.


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