With the MLB First-Year Player Draft coming up on June 3rd, one high profile talent, Carter Stewart, has already announced that he will be heading to Japan to play in the Nippon Professional Baseball League (NPB) of Japan. Stewart was drafted ninth overall in last year’s draft, but elected to go to community college for a year before going professional, as a few players do each year.
Many of the players that elect to forego their first chance at professional baseball do so because they believe they can be drafted higher after some time in college to continue developing. Stewart chose to attend Eastern Florida State College last year after being unable to come to agreeable terms with the team that drafted him, the Atlanta Braves. Now, just under two weeks prior to his next chance to be drafted, Stewart has announced he has agreed to a contract with the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks, and preliminary indications are that he’ll be making much more money in Japan than if he were to elect to go into the draft next month.
What this now means is that Stewart will play in Japan for the next couple years until he is ready to come play in the States again, at which time his team will need to post him for him to be eligible to be signed by a Major League Organization. Another benefit to him in that process is that he then gets to negotiate a contract with a team of his choosing (assuming mutual interest), rather than whichever team drafts him.
This all seems like a sweet deal for Stewart compared to the draft. So here’s the question I ask: Will more players begin to do this?
For a majority of the players drafted, this wouldn’t a reasonable process. A lot of the players that are drafted have already played at least two or three years of college ball, and are within 2-3 years of being MLB-ready talent. Another large group of players are content to pay their dues in the minor leagues and work with the coaches of an organization to develop their skills to where they need to get. However, there are many players drafted in the top-10 rounds that have recently graduated high school, and choose to play a year or two in community college or go to a four-year university for three or four years. For many of those players, it helps them dramatically and they are drafted much higher than they were out of high school. For others, they burn out and never make it. It is that final group of players who I suggest consider this path as an alternative plan to college ball.
Reason #1: Money
As the rules stand, the NCAA prohibits their athletes from being compensated in any form other than the scholarship they may receive from their university, and the organization that runs athletics for Junior Colleges (NJCAA) has the same rule. Effectively, these players can make no money while they’re in college due to their academics and athletic priorities, then they are drafted and make a MiLB wage until they finally reach the big leagues. Well, unfortunately for them, most MiLB players make less than minimum wage when you consider the number of weekly hours they put into training and games.
If a player were to instead go play in the NPB or the KBO (Korean Baseball Organization), they would be making money at least near the MLB league-minimum for a couple of years. The average pay of a player in the NPB is roughly $400,000, while teams in the KBO are offering some American pitching prospects as much as $1.5-$1.8 million per season to play for them. This would allow some of the best young talents in the country to be making money and developing their skills while many of their peers are only doing the latter.
Furthermore, any given player is subject to the same injury risk whether he plays in college in the United States or in a professional league in Asia. If he were to have his career end, the player would have made at least some quantifiable amount of money from his baseball career before having to hang up his cleats.
Reason #2: Player Development
As far as player development goes, the NPB or KBO is a much better alternative to playing in college because of the level of competition and coaching they will receive.
The NPB and KBO have sported talents with the likes of Ichiro Suzuki, Hideki Matsui, Chan Ho Park, and Alfonso Soriano. Not only do these two leagues have as much (if not more) high-end talent than the NCAA can boast, that talent is also compacted into just twelve teams in the NPB and ten in the KBO. A player in those leagues will be facing much better competition and will likely improve faster as a result than a player who is playing against a similar number of high-end players spread out between the 299 Division 1 baseball programs in the NCAA.
Reason #3: Freedom of Choice
Players who come out of the amateur draft are left with very few options for nearly the first decade of their baseball careers. They don’t choose what team they get drafted by. They don’t choose how much they get paid. They certainly don’t get a say in whether they want to change teams before they’ve reached six years of Major League service time. A player who comes to an MLB Organization from the NPB or KBO, however, is treated similar to a veteran free agent. They sign bigger contracts than a majority of players will ever see during arbitration, and, perhaps more important for some, they get to choose what team they play for. Baseball players are just as human as you and I; they have their favorite (and least favorite) teams growing up. Why would a player not want to play for that favorite team, or seek out a spot on a contending team to begin his career?
Why might some prep stars not do this?
The biggest reason a lot of players won’t follow in Stewart’s footsteps? There aren’t enough teams or fan interest. There are only so many roster spots to go around in the Japanese and Korean baseball leagues, and even fewer spots for Americans. Each team in those leagues is capped at a certain number of US-born players, a standard set by the leagues to try and keep a reasonable level of parity among the teams – similar to the system in place in Major League Soccer. Japanese teams may sign as many foreign players as they like, but may only have four foreigners on their 25-man game roster (additionally, at least one of them must be a hitter and another must be a pitcher). In Korea, teams have a secondary salary cap put in place on foreign players.
The other big reason players may not follow in Stewart’s steps is also why a lot of teenagers in the USA don’t go to college that far from home: Asia is really far away. At 18 years old, it’s hard adjusting to living on your own and not having your parents as a safety net anytime you need them. For many players, having to be thousands of miles and a continent away from their family and friends may outweigh the poor salary in the minor leagues or college.
Carter Stewart is one of the highest-profile prospects to make the decision to start his career in Japan or Korea. It is entirely possible that his decision will bear an impact on the talent that would be featured in the minor leagues and college baseball over the coming years as more players start to see that going to Asia to start their careers is not only a viable option, but potentially a better one.
Featured Photo: Florida Today