The Tazawa Problem

» 15 September 2008 » In mlb prospects, nichibei »

By now it’s common knowledge among baseball fans that Junichi Tazawa has elected to forego a career in Nippon Pro Baseball and jump right in to an MLB organization. The Red Sox, Pirates, Braves, Mariners and Cubs have been publicly linked with Tazawa, with Boston considered the front runner to land him. Based on the hype he’s getting I’d expect him to get a contract in the first round draft pick range.

Tazawa’s announcement has predictably send a shock wave through Japanese baseball. Meetings are underway — so far the 12 NPB have met amongst themselves and with three amateur baseball bodies; and NPB commissioner Ryozo Kato is meeting with Bud Selig on September 16 in New York (correction 9/16: representatives from the two commissioners offices are meeting today, a meeting between the actual commissioners is on the cards for later). My impression is that the Japanese baseball institution is more intent on preventing this development from setting a precedent than it is blocking this individual player’s move to the US.

Much of the discussion seems to be around the uneven playing field between NPB and MLB teams in pursuit of Tazawa. Tazawa is subject to the NPB draft, while he’s eligible to sign as a free agent with MLB teams. This puts NPB at a considerable disadvantage: NPB teams can only offer draft picks a maximum bonus of about $1M, while MLB teams aren’t bound to a limit; NPB scouts are limited in when they can talk to amateur players while MLB scouts don’t have to comply to such limits. Like MLB, NPB has a draft system to try and fairly distribute talent among the teams. It would be a shame to see that effort undermined, and it seems worthwhile to revisit the rules for teams scouting players subject to the NPB draft.

It’s important to note that the news here is not necessarily the MLB interest, but that Tazawa has chosen to forgo the NPB draft. NPB and MLB have had an unwritten agreement in place since 1962 that prohibits MLB teams from signing Japanese NPB draft candidates, but that hasn’t stopped MLB teams from trying to sign top Japanese amateurs in the past. Tazawa is the first to accept the overtures. So while MLB teams have mostly honored the letter of the gentleman’s agreement, they haven’t entirely honored the spirit of it. It’s only now that a top talent has been lured away that the NPB institution is getting upset.

Another thing to consider is that each year MLB teams sign much of the top young amateur players out of Taiwan and Korea, and no one bats an eye. Why is that? MLB’s interest in the players from these countries is a validation of the talent that’s there, but I think it impedes the development of local leagues and deprives fans of seeing some of their countries’ top players compete in international competition. Japan has managed to retain its top talent and making them stars at home, which is one of the reasons NPB is a strong league.

Tim Dierkes included my comments that a Japanese team could go after a guy like Aaron Crow or Pedro Alvarez in his most recent post on the Tazawa situation. At this point it would be an obvious retaliation move but under the right circumstances it would make sense for both sides. The player would get a viable alternative to MLB — playing in Japan in front of tens of thousands of fans every night, for millions of dollars. The team would get a talented player that they could eventually send back to MLB via the posting system (Ramon Ramirez is a non-Japanese player who was developed and posted by the Hiroshima Carp).

Obviously there is a lot left to happen before the situation is resolved, but Tazawa has already gotten his name in the history books just by announcing his decision. This development might bring about change to bring NPB and MLB together, or it might drive them apart. I’m hoping for the former.

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