Kohei Arihara wants to pitch in the major leagues in the near future. Haruki Nishikawa wants to make the move as well. Hayato Sakamoto doesn’t want to, but he had to address it all the same.
Welcome to Japanese baseball’s new normal — where the usual offseason cycle of players signing their contracts for the following season may now see more and more stars express a desire to head to North America sooner rather than later.
Before it was mostly the absolute cream of the crop, like Masahiro Tanaka, letting everyone know they wanted to be posted in a year or two. Now it’s players a rung or two down on the ladder — Arihara is a fine pitcher, but no Tanaka just yet — angling for a quick exit.
What will be interesting is how NPB teams react to more players making their wishes known publicly.
Public opinion, for what it’s worth, is probably on the players’ side more than ever. Fans may take exception to a player jetting to another team in free agency, but a move to MLB is another thing entirely.
Granted, that only goes so far. Kodai Senga has been trying to get the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks to post him for a few years now, and the club even turned down foreign closer Dennis Sarfate.
That said, MLB could give some players new leverage.
The Yomiuri Giants were just as opposed to the posting system as the Hawks, yet Shun Yamaguchi successfully negotiated an out for himself when he signed with the club as a free agent in 2016. Which led to the shocking news last month the Giants, of all teams, were going to post Yamaguchi.
Who’s to say more top free agents, and players nearing free agency, won’t try to finagle the same deal out of Yomiuri or some other team. Would the Giants have to change their stance, or otherwise see players like Yamaguchi turn them down in favor of clubs more amiable to a possible posting as an option? Would a draft pick hesitate to sign with them, or SoftBank, without the promise of an expedited path to MLB?
Pitcher Junichi Tazawa bypassed NPB entirely on his way from the corporate league to the majors during the 2008 offseason. He was more or less vilified by baseball officials for doing it, but can at least find solace in nine seasons spent in MLB and rest his head on the World Series ring he won with the Red Sox in 2013.
Playing in MLB has to look more attainable than ever to Japanese players. There are four with realistic shots of making the move this year alone.
Stars such as Ichiro Suzuki, Hideki Matsui, Yu Darvish, Tanaka, Shohei Ohtani and others are on televisions across Japan every morning during the season and players are dreaming beyond Japan’s borders.
It wasn’t so long ago Giants pitcher Koji Uehara was seen as bold for being so matter-of-fact about wanting to be posted or being on the first plane out as soon as he hit free agency.
Now it’s fairly routine to hear a player speak openly about wanting to play in the majors in the near future. Nishikawa, an All-Star once in eight seasons, said he hopes to be posted next offseason.
Of course, NPB teams could do some real soul searching and try to make staying in Japan more attractive.
Just don’t expect it, especially since teams still hold most of the cards. But any new leverage players can wrest away, no matter how small, is a building block.
At the very least, as Yamaguchi showed, it can be an effective negotiating tactic in the right setting. Given the power the clubs wield in most situations, even that could eventually represent a major league change.