By Bob Nightengale |
It may prove to be a stroke of genius, perhaps forever changing the Major League Baseball draft, or a cultural changing nightmare, ensuring no one dares try it again.
Carter Stewart, a 19-year-old pitcher out of Florida, is baseball’s guinea pig.
He is the first player to snub baseball’s amateur draft and sign a long-term contract in Japan, where he will spend the next six years pitching for the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks of the Pacific League, and guaranteed close to $6 million, with performance bonuses and incentives that could triple the amount.
And, if all goes well, he can return to the United States at the age of 25 as an unrestricted free agent, perhaps two or three years earlier than if he was subjected to the rules and regulations of MLB.
“Carter has a unique set of circumstances that placed him in position where MLB placed a detriment upon him,’’ his agent Scott Boras told USA TODAY Sports. “There are only a few draft picks in this decade that are worth this consideration and treatment. But the blithe he suffered in the draft really created a scenario where the Japanese alternative is almost a necessity.
“He had no opportunity to get true value in the American system.’’
It’s a deal that has the baseball world buzzing, with the Major League Players Association pondering whether this could play a major factor in their negotiations with the next collective bargaining agreement, and teams believing it’s nothing more than a public relations ploy that will backfire, leaving him homesick and back in Florida with no place to play.
Stewart, who spent 10 days in Japan with his family before deciding he can handle the culture change, will officially sign the historic contract at the end of the month. The signing bonus will be fully guaranteed, which would pay him about $4.5 million more than if he entered the amateur draft. He was expected to earn about $1.5 million as a high second-round pick.
“This will have a great impact on baseball,’’ Boras said. “Players now know they have an alternative that is much more economically beneficial. These talents have a value, and we have a system that has depressed the value of these player.
“These draft picks are worth much more, and the international markets substantially increase their value to teams that are double and triple what MLB teams would pay. The international markets are going to recognize the value of these players.’’
Yet, Boras concedes, it’s only an alternative. It’s hardly as if the most talented kids in the amateur draft want to travel 7,000 miles, learn a new culture, speak a different language and play in a foreign country. Who knows how many Japanese teams are even attracted to American amateurs? Carter could be a bust as easily in Japan as in the United States.
And, really, let’s be honest, if Stewart had his druthers, he’d be in the Atlanta Braves’ minor-league system today, with hopes of one day reaching the major leagues.
He was selected by Atlanta with the eighth pick of the first round in last year’s draft, a slot value worth $4.98 million. Yet, he flunked his post-draft physical because of ligament damage to his wrist. Stewart informed the Braves that he actually suffered the wrist injury in a skateboarding accident at the age of 9.
The Braves still backed off, and offered only $2 million. Carter, who throws 97-mph with a masterful curveball, refused to sign, changed agents, filed a grievance that he eventually lost, and now is taking his talents to a country an awful long way from home.
“People will say I took a 19-year-old kid and threw him to Japan,’’ Boras said. “This had to be his choice. My thing was that the family had to be on board with the culture. They had to go over there and understand what it was about. They came back, and said, ‘This is fantastic.’
“This was best for him and his family.
There may be no Tomahawk chop in the stands, a KissCam on the scoreboard, or a Mike Trout or Mookie Betts at the plate, but it’s professional baseball. It’s where pitchers like Masahiro Tanaka of the New York Yankees and Yu Darvish of the Chicago Cubs learned their craft to earn in excess of $100 million, while American pitchers like Miles Mikolas of the St. Louis Cardinals went over to re-boot their careers and return as All-Stars.
“He now is financially set for life,’’ Boras said, “and the next step is development for him. We have seen multiple players come out of the Japanese League system and be productive Major League players.’’
Stewart certainly had no intention of going to Japan. When he couldn’t reach an agreement with Atlanta, he went to Eastern Florida State College, went 2-2 with a 1.70 ERA, striking out 108 in 74 1/3 innings, in hopes of re-establishing his value. Well, with the draft just two weeks away, he and Boras discovered there was no teams interested in making him a first-round pick again. He would be selected somewhere after the first 50 picks, meaning that the year he spent in junior college was for naught, and may have lowered his value.
Well, along came officials from the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks who saw it as a coup to their franchise to attract a former first-round pick. And Stewart, seeing the financial windfall, and believing he can develop in Japan’s minor-league system just as quickly as the minor leagues in the United States, agreed to the deal.
“The American system created a bias towards this player that was extraordinarily false,’’ Boras said. “It gave the player a motivation to look for alternatives. This is a portal where you are getting double or triple the money what MLB is paying in the draft, and you’re a free agent at 25.
“Our job is to give him choices.
“And this gives him an option that was much more favorable than the MLB option.’’
The baseball world will now brace itself for the fallout and repercussions.
Will amateur players in this year’s draft use Japan or Korea for leverage in negotiations? If there are any more defections, will MLB be forced to overhaul the draft and provide a much more free market? Or will this be nothing but an aberration and Stewart will be relegated to being a footnote in draft history.
“The point is that we built a freeway that is now acceptable for this kind of talent to travel,’’ Boras said. “Carter had no opportunity to get his true value in the American system. The fact now is there are options.
“In time, we will have the opportunity to look back and understand what this meant, and how it impacted the system.’’