Baseball / Japanese Baseball | Sac Bunts

Stewart's bold move to Japan could shake up MLB, NPB

by Jason Coskrey

Hiroshima Carp pitcher Kyle Regnault doesn’t know what he’d do if he were in Carter Stewart’s cleats.

Stewart, a 19-year-old pitcher from Melbourne, Florida, finalized a deal with the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks on Saturday that has the potential to be groundbreaking.

Stewart skipping the MLB draft — where he was the No. 8 pick by the Atlanta Braves last year, but didn’t sign — to come to Japan is uncharted territory. According to the terms first reported by Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic, Stewart will make $7 million over six years with the Hawks.

That’s more than he’d likely get by being drafted in MLB (thanks to its draft pool system) and coming up through the minor leagues. It also comes with the added bonus of Stewart not having his service time manipulated — which would let a team keep him on the cheap for another year or two — and becoming an MLB free agent a few years earlier than most.

Stewart is betting on himself in a big way, but it’s a brilliant gambit that could lead to a windfall if he’s good.

Of course to get there, Stewart will have to relocate to the other side of the world and adjust to a new language and culture while developing as a ballplayer. Latin American players have been doing this for years, Stewart will just be further from home.

“It’s tough,” said Regnault. “Being 19, there’s a lot of things that go into that decision, and he’s a high-profile guy. I’m sure that he’s talked to his family and people of importance to him who helped him make that decision. Six or 7 million dollars, that’s a lot of money. Knowing what I know now, and seeing the environment and the culture here, it’d be tough to turn that down.”

Let’s assume for a moment it works out.

Actually presenting Japan, and probably Korea, as a legitimate alternative to the draft would shift the power dynamic between MLB clubs and prospects. It might even make MLB and the players’ union rethink their approach to the way the draft is run.

A lot has been written about the impact the move could have on MLB, but NPB might also change somewhat.

If the Hawks reap big benefits, there will eventually be copycats. Additionally, Stewart’s route might also prove attractive to high-caliber international prospects under 25, such as those from the baseball-rich Dominican Republic, who are subject to international bonus pools that limit their early compensation. That’s how the Angels got Shohei Ohtani for basically pennies compared to what he’d have gotten otherwise.

There probably won’t be a flood of players running to Japan, but NPB could attract a fair share who could be signed and developed on the farm. If so, perhaps the league will then take steps to revitalize its minor league system to make that more attractive.

You’d also have to assume NPB clubs would want players who pan out to stay in Japan. In that case, the league should find ways to improve itself in order to entice them, and star Japanese players for that matter, to stick around.

If any of that happens, it’ll be with some irony, given the way pitcher Junichi Tazawa was basically villainized for skipping the NPB draft to sign with the Red Sox in 2008.

For now, all this is rampant speculation. First of all, everyone will be watching to see how things work out with Stewart.

Coming to Japan isn’t always easy, and more than a few veterans have been tripped up by it.

“Even before I came to Japan this year, I didn’t really know what to expect,” Regnault said. “I’d talked to players who had come here in the past, so I had a little bit of an idea. But being 30 years old coming over here, I’d had a career of experiences, going to the minor leagues. It’s a grind. You’re not making a lot of money, you’re playing a lot of games and with not many off-days.

“So when you look at it in that perspective, there’s a lot of positives that he’ll have coming to Japan.”

Regnault, in his first year in Japan, can see how the NPB way rubbing off on a young player can be a good thing.

“I think if you learn this type of work ethic at a young age . . . this kind of stuff you take for granted when you’re 18, 19, 20, 21, and then once you turn 25, 26, you start paying attention more.

“So if you can pick this up at an early age, I think it’s very beneficial. You can just see it by the younger guys here that are coming up one year out of high school and they’re performing at this level.”