The Japan Professional Baseball Players Association (JPBPA) has a chance to do some good by proposing more changes to the free agency system.
In calling for a shorter wait until international free agency and an elimination of the compensation system, the players are seeking to loosen the grip the NPB’s stifling rules have on player movement.
Both are good ideas in theory, but where the JPBPA has faltered historically is in digging in long enough to see the job done.
Shortening the wait for international free agency could end up being the most contentious proposal.
International free agency is often a touchy subject, as many see the flow of talent to the major leagues as a burgeoning epidemic.
Current free agency rules state a player must have seven years of service time to qualify for domestic free agency (as opposed to six in the major leagues) and nine before being able to move overseas. The union is seeking a seven-year period for both.
For affected players, it would provide a chance to test the MLB waters earlier in their careers.
NPB standards define a “year” of service time as 150 days on the active roster.
According to the JPBPA’s Web site, it takes 10 years on average for a player to qualify for international free agency.
For example, Fukuoka Softbank Hawks shortstop Munenori Kawasaki is in his 11th season and won’t qualify until sometime next year. Chiba Lotte Marines closer Hiroyuki Kobayashi is in his 14th season and only recently met the requirements.
It’s also possible a player could use an overseas move as a negotiating ploy to squeeze a few more yen out of an NPB club whether he intends to leave or not.
The threat of losing a valued player with nothing to show for it can drive up the price a team is willing shell out to keep him.
Making the proposed elimination of the compensation system a major issue.
Under current rules, when a player leaves via domestic free agency, his former club can ask his new employer for an amount that is 1 1/2 times his original salary as compensation.
Alternatively, the former team can take its pick from a list of unprotected players from the signee’s new club.
The promise of compensation means the player’s original team can afford to lowball him slightly, which could have a rippling effect on the rest of the market.
It can also make signing players an expensive ordeal for teams — excluding the Yomiuri Giants — that may otherwise be in the market for players.
Scrapping this system may help drive up a player’s value to his team in free agency, as well as increase the price others have to pay to acquire him.
On the surface both ideas seem to be in the players’ favor, which means the NPB powers-that-be will likely be in opposition.
So the union has to stand firm and fight for whatever outcome is in the players’ best interests.
The JPBPA has historically been devoid of the heavy-handed resolve that has helped shape its MLB counterpart into the entity it is today.
The players have had their moments, small victories here and there, but largely fail to enjoy many of the things the MLBPA has fought to provide MLB players.
If Japanese baseball is serious about trying to keep its talent in Japan, the union will have to step up and fight to provide players an enticing reason to stay.
Fighting for improved free agency conditions is as good a place as any to start.