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Rules on free agency leaving Fujii in limbo

by Jason Coskrey

Former Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters pitcher Shugo Fujii is stuck between a rock and a hard place.

The NPB doesn’t seem to want him, but its rules are preventing him from finding a job elsewhere.

The 10-year veteran, who helped the Fighters reach the Japan Series this year, filed for free agency after the season, but thus far has found no suitors for his services.

Fujii was 7-5 with a 3.53 ERA for the Fighters this season. He struck out 63 batters and finished with a K/9 of 4.94. Opposing batters hit .280 against the right-hander (lefties hit .298 against him, while right-handed batters hit .272).

The Hanshin Tigers and Yokohama BayStars sent out feelers early in the free agency period, but both clubs settled on other options.

No other teams have stepped up with the intention of signing him, which is a problem for the hurler, who is not yet eligible to try and catch on with an MLB club.

NPB rules currently state a player must complete nine years of service time in order to qualify for international free agency. One year of service time is considered 145 days spent on the ichi-gun roster. Time spent in the minors does not count toward the total.

So despite being a pro since 2000, Fujii has yet to fulfill the service-time requirements to qualify for international free agency as pitchers Hisanori Takahashi and Ryota Igarashi have done this year.

Which leaves him in a sort of baseball purgatory, unsigned in Japan and unable to launch an attempt at signing with a foreign club.

Under the current rules, unless things change, Fujii could be looking at the prospect of a season out of pro baseball — which would further increase his wait to qualify for international free agency.

Fujii is 63-66 with a 3.79 ERA in 223 career games. He began his career with the Tokyo Yakult Swallows in 2000. He’s been a double-digit winner three times in his career and the 3.08 ERA he posted in 2002 is his career low.

Fujii’s numbers, while not bad, won’t dazzle many, and there’s a chance he would be passed over on the MLB market as well. But the wealth of teams overseas, including the Korean Baseball Organization, at least presents more opportunities.

The Japanese Professional Baseball Players Association is looking into the matter in hopes of finding a solution.

The JPBPA is said to be discussing the possibility of making an exception for Fujii by allowing him to pursue employment outside Japan.