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THE HOT CORNER: A perfectly good mess

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THE HOT CORNER: A perfectly good mess

by Jim Allen (Dec 2, 2010)

A few days from now, we will know whether or not the oddities of the posting system will have dashed pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma's hopes of playing in the major leagues next season.

Dec. 7 is the deadline for the Oakland Athletics to sign the Eagles ace. If no deal is done, the right-hander would be the first player to get this far in the posting process and not sign a contract.

Iwakuma wants to play in the majors, and the A's ostensibly want him. So what's the hangup? Basically, it's in the nature of the posting system for things to be weird.

Should a major league club fail to sign a player, no fee is paid. Thus, a team in a highly competitive division, say the AL East, could make an extraordinarily high bid on a player and then refuse to negotiate. At no cost, all of the club's rivals would be blocked from signing that player.

The benefits of such a tactic, however, would be tiny and short-lived. Most posted players are just a year from free agency, and they can negotiate with whomever they please the following season. Also, any major league club playing that kind of hardball would likely forfeit its credibility in the eyes of future Japanese free agents.

In Iwakuma's case, agent Don Nomura appeared to have reached an impasse with the A's a week ago. In a string of Nov. 22 Twitter posts, Nomura said the A's offer was four years for 15.5 million dollars, take it or leave it. The average annual salary at that rate would be comparable to what Iwakuma now earns as an Eagle.

The A's, meanwhile, officially remain silent on negotiations.

Of course, an agent's public indignation with a ball club is nothing new. When Daisuke Matsuzaka was negotiating with Boston four years ago, agent Scott Boras raked the Red Sox over the coals.

Boras said Matsuzaka deserved more: as much as a 26-year-old free agent pitching star would normally expect to receive.

Unfortunately, there were two serious flaws in Boras' claim: 1) With the exception of the occasional 26-year-old Cuban pitcher, there is no such market; and 2) Matsuzaka was not a free agent.

Nonsense and bad feelings, however, should be expected when teams and agents collide.

A high-bidding team has only 30 days to get a deal done, but its rights are exclusive. It does not have to offer more than it values a player. Thus, if the A's think the 29-year-old Iwakuma is worth a total of 34.35 million dollars (including posting fee) for four years, there is little logic to pay more.

It's not a very satisfactory situation, so why do we have it?

It's here because of three events.

The first was Nippon Professional Baseball's introduction of free agency in 1993. This permitted veterans to test the market, with the clubs that sign free agents being forced to compensate the players' former teams.

"When it was conceived, we saw it as domestic free agency," former Pacific League secretary general Shigeru Murata told The Hot Corner on Tuesday. "We never thought it would mean a Japanese player going overseas."

That possibility emerged suddenly in 1995, when Hideo Nomo became a major league sensation after fleeing his Japanese club through a loophole in NPB rules.

Nomo's success created a new market for Japanese players in the majors, whose clubs could not be compelled to compensate Japanese teams, creating an even larger loss for teams whose stars were determined to go overseas as free agents.

In 1996, the Chiba Lotte Marines had a star determined to play abroad. Their solution: a trade to a major league team with which they had a working relationship. However, the deal that sent disaffected pitcher Hideki Irabu to the San Diego Padres provided the final impetus for the creation of a compromise.

On top of the fact that Irabu wasn't keen to play for the Padres and forced a subsequent trade to the Yankees, major league clubs without Japan connections had cause to think they could be shut out of the market for non-free agents.

The ensuing compromise is a mess.

It rewards teams for selling top players out of the country before they leave as free agents--when the team will get nothing in return.

It also creates a one-sided market that is identical to the amateur draft. A player has one choice: Sign or stay where he is.

It's ugly, but compromises often are.

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