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New posting system puts Rakuten in unfavorable position

by Jason Coskrey

Staff Writer

While the relevant parties have given their blessings to a new posting agreement between Nippon Professional Baseball and Major League Baseball, there is still no resolution to Masahiro Tanaka’s situation.

The Eagles were widely expected to post Tanaka this offseason, but the newly agreed upon system, complete with a $20 million cap on posting fees, seems to have the team rethinking things.

“First of all, discuss it with him,” Rakuten president Yozo Tachibana was quoted as saying by AP from MLB’s winter meetings in Orlando. “I don’t know if he wants to do it.” Tachibana has said his priority is to convince Tanaka to remain with Rakuten.

Under the auspices of the old agreement, the Eagles were virtually guaranteed a financial windfall. Now they won’t even recoup market value whether Tanaka is posted or leaves as a free agent two seasons from now.

Ironically, the system hurriedly pieced together to facilitate Tanaka’s move could keep him in Japan.

If nothing else, Rakuten’s newfound hesitance can’t bode well for future superstars as things currently stand.

The posting system is scheduled to cover at least the next three years, by which time the chief problem could be Japanese teams individually acting in their own self-interest — something they didn’t do as a collective when agreeing to the new system in the first place — and keeping star players.

It’s one thing for NPB owners to have agreed to the new system when it’s not their player or potential millions on the table.

Imagine if Shohei Otani, who had MLB teams interested coming out of high school, blossoms in a few years’ time. Would the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters still be so willing to accept $20 million and no more? Would the Fighters have been happy with that two seasons ago, when the market ultimately decided Yu Darvish was worth a $51.7 million fee?

The Eagles were expecting something close to that, if not more, for Tanaka. Who’s to say it’s not worth more to simply keep him and reap the competitive and financial benefits of having Japan’s biggest star on the roster for another two seasons.

Such a situation mostly concerns the top 1 percent of players, as large posting fees have been more exception than rule. Of the 13 successful postings, only Daisuke Matsuzaka ($51.1 million) Kei Igawa ($26 million) and Darvish drew winning bids of more than $15 million (Hisashi Iwakuma’s failed posting drew a bid of $19.1 million in 2010). Though what happens at the top tends to trickle down somewhat.

Still, MLB teams felt they were paying out too much in posting fees, and small market teams felt they were locked out of the process as fees didn’t count toward the luxury tax.

The new system addresses these concerns — essentially punishing NPB teams for MLB owners’ inability to rein in their own spending (no, no, take our best player, keep your bags of cash) — and also figures to give Japanese players a bigger piece of the pie. So it’s easy to reconcile the merits for those parties.

The obvious question is why would NPB owners approve it?

Patrick Newman, or his brain at least, raises a great point on his website, NPB Tracker, noting not all NPB teams are particularly fond of the system anyway, rendering whatever the agreement is a moot point to them.

The Yomiuri Giants, for instance, resisted Koji Uehara’s wishes to move to MLB until the pitcher reached free agency. The Hanshin Tigers, maybe knowing what they had in Igawa, utilized the system in 2006 but held on to closer Kyuji Fujikawa with a vice-like grip.

The biggest impediment to the movement of top-flight players in the Darvish, Tanaka class may come when NPB teams realize it’s not their duty to offer up their biggest stars at reduced rates upon request to make the MLB product better, or appease that league’s small market teams.

If Rakuten, or some team down the road, feels a player is worth more than $20 million, the club may deem it best to keep him.

Heeding the call of agent Don Nomura would be one solution. Nomura told The Japan Times several weeks ago that he felt, “the easier solution is to find a trigger where the player has the right to go to the United States.

“That something can trigger it other than free agency. I think teams should be allowed to make a profit from the player’s rights, but there has to be some trigger on the Japanese side that gives the players the right to go to the States.”

Tanaka and the Eagles have talked about posting before now, and it’s possible he still heads west this winter. Even so, the new agreement could be trouble for the next wave of big-ticket players.