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NPB moving to dissuade ‘major’ moves

by Jason Coskrey

Nippon Professional Baseball earlier this week announced that it will present a proposal to the players’ association aimed at shortening the free-agency period to seven years for players drafted out of college and the industrial leagues and eight years for players drafted out of high school beginning with the upcoming draft.

One of the more interesting things, however, is the “overseas free-agency” provision that is reported to be included in the proposal.

This rule states that despite the shortened free-agency period, a player would still have to wait nine seasons before qualifying to become an “overseas-bound” free-agent.

The inclusion of this provision seems to beg the question as to whether the NPB has finally convinced itself that there is a mass exodus of top players leaving Japan for the United States. Which there doesn’t seem to be.

On the surface, the “overseas” rule seems aimed at, whether it is or not, discouraging the top Japanese players from bolting for the major leagues.

But it seems that instead of trying to deter players from leaving for the U.S., the NPB would be better suited by finding a way to build the game in Japan at the grassroots level. So when the stars do leave, there’s a crop of NPB-ready players waiting to take their places.

For that to happen would require an overhaul of the NPB’s minor league system.

In a country that prides itself on its rich baseball history, it’s a bit shameful that there are so few opportunities for young players to play the game professionally.

The Japanese minor league system consists simply of the farm teams of the 12 professional franchises although there are a few independent leagues.

Excluding independent leagues, that leaves thousands of high school, college and industrial league players with just 24 teams (12 professional and 12 farm) to aspire for.

Compare that with the MLB system which features, excluding leagues not affiliated with Major League Baseball, 30 professional teams and as late as 2004, 242 minor league clubs in 20 different leagues.

Now there is a laundry list of reasons why the major league system in its exact form would not work in Japan. But it shouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility for the brain-trust running the game to come up with a workable solution.

Japanese baseball officials often make reference to the growth of the J. League and how many top athletes are now choosing to play soccer instead of baseball. One reason might be that there are just not enough chances on the diamond.

So it stands to reason that Japanese baseball might be better served by providing more opportunities for aspiring baseball players to play the game.

Not every young player is going to be NPB material right out of high school or college. But a player that has the tools could develop into something special if given the chance to develop under the watchful eye of a minor-league team manager.

That’s the path a lot of current MLB stars took to the big leagues. They paid their dues and developed their skills in the minors.

Two shining examples are last season’s AL and NL Rookie of the Year winners, Boston Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia and Milwaukee Brewers left fielder Ryan Braun, who each spent a couple of years in the minors before exploding onto the scene in 2007.

In fact almost every current MLB player spent time in the minors, with the vast majority starting out in Single or Double-A and working their way up. The point is, with so many opportunities the cream of the crop eventually rose to the top, which is one reason the level of play in the MLB is considered the best in the world.

Young players in the MLB system get a chance to play and improve in the minors as opposed to many Japanese players that are lost in the shuffle on crowded farm-team rosters.

How many great Japanese players with the skills have been left by the wayside because they didn’t have the opportunity to hone them?

Creating more opportunities would put more good young players in the pipeline who could eventually improve the already-high level of play in the professional ranks.

The NPB already has the framework laid with its current farm system, its just a matter of finding a workable way to expand it.

Besides, improvements in the game at home might be the first step to convincing players to keep their talents in Japan.