Foreign relations reached a crescendo this week with developments for two internationally prized players. The Texas Rangers won negotiating rights to the young Japanese pitcher Yu Darvish, and a young Cuban outfielder, Yoenis Cespedes, appeared close to gaining residency in the Dominican Republic en route to his baseball career in the major leagues.
Both players will have to prove themselves on the highest level in this country, but they will do it well fortified with money. The difference is that Darvish is restricted to negotiating only with the Rangers while Cespedes, once he is granted Dominican residency, will be a free agent, able to negotiate with any and all teams.
Darvish is limited in his ability to get the best contract he can secure because of Major League Baseball’s agreement with Japanese baseball.
If a Japanese player is under contract to a team in Japan, he cannot sign with a United States team unless his team posts him, giving major league teams the right to bid for him. Only one team, however, wins the bidding and rights to a player.
If his Japanese team accepts the highest bid, the player has 30 days in which to negotiate a contract. If he is unsuccessful, he remains in Japan until his contract expires and then he can become a free agent. The major league team, meanwhile, pays nothing.
The Nippon Ham Fighters accepted the Rangers’ bid, reported to be $51.7 million, highest ever for the posting system, and Darvish’s agent is now negotiating a contract. No contract, no bid paid.
Cespedes is a free agent because Major League Baseball has no restrictive rules governing the signing of other foreign players. Not that M.L.B. doesn’t want to restrict foreign players. Officials have tried for years to get the union to agree to an international draft, and they are trying again now as part of the new collective bargaining agreement. Obviously, they have never been successful.
The union is not eager to help institute an international draft. Although it doesn’t represent undrafted, amateur players or even professional players not on 40-man major league rosters, the union generally opposes any idea that would restrict salaries.
An international draft would certainly restrict salaries. That’s why the owners want it. The best amateur foreign players have always been objects of competition for major league organizations, and that competition automatically raises the signing bonus a player will get.
A draft would limit a drafted player to a one-team negotiation and severely limit what he might get in a contract. Unlike American kids who can reject a team’s offer and go to college instead, or at least use the threat of college as bargaining leverage, foreign kids have no alternative.
Their reason for signing as soon as they are allowed is to get money for themselves and their families and to get off the island. Even though they would have agents, they would be eager to sign and begin their money-earning days.
Clubs would certainly take advantage of that frame of mind and try to induce kids to accept less money. That scheme wouldn’t work without a draft.
Cuban players are in still another category of amateur players. Major league cannot simply send scouts to Cuba and have them sign the best prospects they find. The United States government prohibits such forays, and the Cuban government doesn’t allow it either.
For a Cuban player to sign with a major league team, he first has to escape his homeland and go to another country, where he can establish residency. He could try to do that in the United States, but he would then lose his chance to be a free agent and would be subject to the annual June draft.
One of the more recent Cubans to sign with a major league team was Aroldis Chapman, a left-handed pitcher who pitched for Cuba in the 2009 World Baseball Classic, then defected in the Netherlands three months later. He was highly sought after and, at the age of 21, signed a 6-year, $30.25 million contract with Cincinnati in January 2010.
In one season plus one month from the previous season, Chapman has relieved in 69 games, compiled a 6-3 record with a 3.27 earned run average and has struck out 90 and walked 46 in 63 1/3 innings. He missed a month (May 23-June 21) with shoulder inflammation.
The Reds plan to move Chapman into the starting rotation next season but decided to have him sit out winter ball rather than have him start in Puerto Rico so he can strengthen his shoulder.
The Rangers look forward to having Darvish in their starting rotation next season. A 25-year-old right-hander, Darvish had an 18-6 record and a 1.44 e.r.a. (fifth straight season under 2.00) in Japan last season, striking out 276 in 232 innings. Like Chapman, he pitched in the 2009 World Baseball Classic.
Japanese pitchers have had uneven success in the majors. Boston bid $51.1 million for 26-year-old Daisuke Matsuzaka, then signed him for $52 million. He posted a 15-12 record in the Red Sox 2007 World Series championship season, then improved to 18-3 the next season but has since been plagued by injuries.
“I think it’s rare that pitchers of this quality become available at age 25,” Arn Tellem, the veteran agent, said of his client, Darvish. “Very few franchise pitchers become available in the open market and they’re in their late 20s at best. He’s a once-in-a- generation pitcher.”
There seems to be little chance that Tellem and the Rangers will be unable to reach agreement on a contract. It will be worth more than Matsuzaka’s $52 million, but the Rangers will pay it because they scouted Darvish extensively in Japan and know what they are getting. In addition, the deal had the blessing of the team’s Hall of Fame managing partner, who knows something about pitching, a guy named Nolan Ryan.
Darvish and Tellem are ahead of Cespedes and his agent, Adam Katz, in their quest for a major league contract.
Once he gains residency in the Dominican, the 26-year-old Cespedes will need approval to sign a contract from Major League Baseball, which will verify his age and his identity, and from the United States Office of Foreign Assets Control.
That scenario will take Cespedes into next month before Katz can negotiate with the teams that have expressed interest, which have been said to include the Yankees, Red Sox, Orioles, Tigers, Phillies, Cubs, Nationals and Rangers. Any two of that group, particularly the first two, will virtually assure that the Cuban outfielder will fare better financially than the Japanese pitcher.
Cespedes, who was Cuba’s starting center fielder in the 2009 World Baseball Classic, batted at least .323 in each of the last four seasons and hit a record-setting 33 home runs during the 2010-11 Cuban National Series before defecting to the Dominican Republic last summer.
“I’m told he’s major league ready,” said Katz, his agent.
Cespedes has been described as having power to all fields, a plus arm that is just behind the best outfield arms in the majors and “a lot of character.”
The team that signs Cespedes will not have already spent a considerable sum to win negotiating rights, as the Rangers have with Darvish.
“When the system was first discussed I don’t think anyone envisioned posting fees going where they have gone,” Tellem said. “One person suffers in this and that’s the player. His choices are limited, which is contrary to giving him his freedom.”
Using Matsuzaka as an example, the agent said, “No question he should have gotten more than 52 million.”
Tellem said change in the system is needed and offered one idea “to take the three highest bidders and the player could negotiate with all of them.” The player’s Japanese team, he suggested, could receive the average of the three top bids.
“The way it is now,” Tellem added, “is clearly unfair for the players.”
The clubs, of course, would disagree, which is one reason they seek an international draft, anything to reduce their spending.
Not all of the clubs have always believed in such a system. When the idea of a draft for foreign players came up during the 2002 labor negotiations, the clubs were unable to develop a consensus on the issue and it went nowhere.
At the time enough clubs shunned the international market, unwilling or unable to spend money on scouting around the world, and the non-participants knew if a draft were instituted, they would have to begin spending just to keep up with the clubs that were already spending on international scouting.
After all, when it’s your turn to pick a player, if you haven’t scouted in the Dominican and Venezuela and Panama, how do you know whom to select, look over the shoulder of the guy next to you who has a list?
By now, however, the reluctant have been dragged into the reality of the second decade of the new century and they are ready for a draft to keep costs down.
In the recent talks for a new collective bargaining agreement, the union agreed to consider a draft if all other elements linked to the scouting and development of foreign players were also discussed, and the two sides formed a committee to explore the entire field.
Scheduled to begin meeting next month, the committee is made up of co-chairmen Rob Manfred of the commissioner’s office and Michael Weiner, the union’s executive director; three management members—Kim Ng, Sandy Alderson and Andrew Friedman—and three union representatives—Tony Clark, Stan Javier and Rick Shapiro.
Besides a draft itself, they will discuss such issues as education for foreign players, greater opportunities for players to play, development of players before a draft, continued opportunities for players who go undrafted and unsigned and corruption by scouts and club officials by which they siphon money from players’ signing bonuses.
“Conditions exist for a more meaningful and comprehensive effort than in 2002,” Weiner said. “The current system by which players come into the game has a lot of things worthy of reform. Some favor the players, some the clubs, some have mutual interest.”
Whatever emerges from the committee’s discussions would be yet another sign of baseball’s new era in labor relations.