A Tale of Two Players
One way or another, Stephen Strasburg is going to make history. He’ll either sign with the Nationals for a record-setting bonus, or he won’t and something unprecedented would happen. The idea of Strasburg going to Japan in an attempt to attain free agency was floated and quickly discredited, and rightfully so. The details of why it wouldn’t work have been thoroughly documented so there’s no point in rehashing them here, so it’ll suffice to say that Strasburg is unlikely to get the contract that Scott Boras is seeking from a more restrictive NPB system.
Last week we got the news that Texas Rangers draftee Tanner Scheppers is also considering Japan. Unlike Strasburg, we have some evidence that Scheppers is actually taking action to pursue Japan — he apparently has a work out scheduled for “at least half a dozen NPB teams” (hat tip to John Brooks). Scheppers is a little different from Strasburg — he isn’t nearly as highly touted, he was drafted and unsigned last year by Pittsburgh, and he’s spent the last season playing for the St. Paul Saints, with guys like current Hanshin Tiger Craig Brazell. Scheppers was also drafted from a professional league, so the Rangers get until next year to sign him. Still, if Scheppers’ goal is simply to get a bigger bonus out of the Rangers, a move to Japan is unlikely to achieve his desired result.
Two Other Players
It’s worth pointing out that Strasburg and Scheppers aren’t really in uncharted territory here. In 2002, Cincinnati Reds draftee Mark Schramek tried out with the old Orix Blue Wave after failing to draw an offer he was happy with. Gary Garland recalled the Schramek story in an editorial when the idea of Strasburg to Japan idea was first floated:
I got on the imaginary phone in my head and dialed up Mr. Peabody to ask him to lend me his wayback machine. I set the controls for the heart of the 2002 season, where I came upon one Mark Schramek, who had just been drafted in the first round out of the University of Texas at San Antonio as an infielder by Cincinnati. The Reds, not being entirely forthcoming with the readies that Master Schramek had his heart set on, decided to journey to Japan and contemplate a season with the Orix Blue Wave as leverage to squeeze more money out of the historic Ohio nine. Orix later responded to Schramek’s overtures by demanding that he sign a nine year contract with them. This was pro forma, as Orix was not happy being used as an “ateuma (that is, a horse that is used to get a stud horse all hot and bothered in preparation to be bred with another mare in hopes of producing successful horse racing offspring)” and basically offered Schramek a deal they knew he would refuse.
Schramek went on to have a forgettable four-year run in the minors, never advancing beyond 2A.
A guy that actually kind of made it work was Matt Randel. Randel was not a prospect of even Schramek’s caliber, but managed to get an NPB contract, and made a few appearances in Japan before having a couple of respectable seasons in Korea. The following summary is taken from the BR Bullpen:
Matt Randel is a highly unusual American pitcher in that over 80% of his baseball career has been in Asia.
Randel was an 84th-round pick of the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 1995 amateur draft. He went on to college instead of signing, but dropped out. He got his big break in 1999 when he tried out for the Daiei Hawks and was signed. He allowed hits to 2 of the 3 batters he faced for Daiei in 2000.
The Yomiuri Giants signed Randel after his stint in Texas and he was 1-1 with a 7.71 ERA in 3 games for them in 2003. The next year, the 27-year-old was 3-2 with a save and a 5.45 ERA in 24 games, his busiest season in Japan. He did strike out 42 batters in 39 2/3 innings.
After leaving Japan, Randel caught on with the Doosan Bears of South Korea. He debuted in the Korea Baseball Organization in 2005 with a 12-7, 3.25 record despite allowing 163 hits in 149 2/3 IP. In 2006, the Doosan hurler posted a 16-8, 2.95 record.
Randel’s salary was unlikely to be much higher than the league minimum for any of the time he spent in Japan. The Hawks made a few other international signings around the time they had Randel, notably Anderson Gomes.
So we have some anecdotal evidence showing that NPB teams are unlikely to partake in money games with blue-chip prospects, but will perhaps take on lower-risk, lower-reward guys. It would be great to see more international prospects developed in Japan, and there are some likely some prospects who profile well to the opportunites Japanese and Asian baseball can offer, but that won’t be the blue chip guys.