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Hawks catch break with Yanagita

by Jason Coskrey

Staff Writer

On one hand, Yuki Yanagita will be one of the most well-paid players in Japan next season. On the other, he’ll be kind of a steal.

While Shohei Ohtani didn’t go to the majors for money, Yanagita’s new NPB deal with the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks illustrates why it can be such a motivating factor for other players looking to make the move.

Granted, there is an ocean of difference in the way MLB and NPB clubs are run. So it’s hard to compare the compensation structures apples to apples. But in just terms of cold, hard cash, the difference is as wide as the Pacific Ocean.

Take Yanagita for instance. The 29-year old, he’ll be 30 in October, is the best player on NPB’s best team. He might be the best player in NPB. On Saturday, he signed a new three-year deal with the recently crowned Japan Series champions reportedly worth an estimated ¥400 million (about $3.53 million) annually, plus performance incentives. Yanagita was also on track to reach domestic free agency next season, and international free agency after that. His new deal locks him up beyond both dates.

“It’s an amazing number,” Yanagita said during a news conference on Saturday in Fukuoka.

A random MLB observer new to Japanese baseball might say the same, but for an entirely different reason.

The SoftBank center fielder is making a nice salary in Japanese baseball, but he’d be a steal in MLB money.

Yanagita has had at least a .306 average each of the past three years and paired that with 34 homers in 2015 and 31 in 2017 (he only reached 18 in 2016).

Next season, he’ll make a little over $3.5 million and somewhere over $10 million over the life of the deal.

In MLB, according to USA Today, Phillies outfielder Odubel Herrera will make around $3.35 million in 2018 and over $5 million in 2019. Herrera, a talented young and rising star, over the past three seasons has a combined WAR of 10.3, per Baseball Reference, in the majors. Yanagita was at 23.6 over the same period in Japan, per Deltagraphs.

He’s probably not about to slow down just yet either.

“The team’s goal is to become the No. 1 team in Japan, and my goal is to become the top batter,” Yanagita was quoted as saying during the news conference by various outlets.

The Hawks star was second among all Japanese players in WAR in 2015, sixth in 2016 and third last season. The Yomiuri Giants’ Hayato Sakamoto was the only other player in the top six each of the past three seasons.

Ohtani’s new teammate Mike Trout (the Angels’ center fielder) has been in the top 10 in MLB each of the past three seasons and is arguably the best player there. Trout in 2014 signed a six-year extension worth $144 million. According to USA Today’s figures, his average annual salary is just over $24 million.

To be fair, the Hawks aren’t shy about paying their top players relative to NPB salaries. Although, even then, Yanagita is probably a little underpaid. But only seven players made at least ¥400 million last season, and he’ll be in that club next year, joining teammates Seiichi Uchikawa, Tsuyoshi Wada, Nobuhiro Matsuda and Tadashi Settsu.

Perhaps it’s karma Settsu is in that group, because if Yanagita is underpaid, Settsu has trended in the opposite direction. Settsu signed a three-year deal after the 2015 season on the heels of a four-year stretch of being among the top hurlers in Japan, including his Sawamura Award season in 2012.

Since 2016, the right-hander has made just 14 appearances and gone 2-4 all the way to the bank.

In terms of top players, NPB can’t compare with what MLB teams can offer. That has been the case for decades. Yanagita’s new deal just highlights it even more than usual.

Because when taking Yanagita’s skill into account, that deal for a player of his caliber really is kind of amazing when you think about it.