How One Little Trip to Japan Could Change Major League Baseball

In one of the most famous sci-fi scenes in cinematic history, Morpheus asked Neo to decide between a blue pill and a red pill. He offered the truth and an awakening of sorts, the ability to see what the world truly was and how it functioned.

While the decision recently made by Carter Stewart may not change the course of post-apocalyptic dystopia, he very well may go down as “the One” in terms of changing the way Major League Baseball drafts and compensates players. It may also help to change matrices when it comes to salary, eventually morphing into a totally different way of compensating minor leaguers.

Consequently, this will have an effect on the Cubs and every other team in baseball because it will affect the holy trinity of business — money, money, and more money. You don’t even need a cypher to see what I just did right there.

The 19-year-old Stewart, a right-handed pitcher out of Eastern Florida State College, was the eighth overall pick by the Braves in the 2018 draft. Every kid’s dream, right? Well, until Stewart was offered a significantly reduced signing bonus due to an alleged injury. So rather than sign with Atlanta, the Scott Boras client opted to join the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks of Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball.

While this may not seem like a huge deal on the surface, the problem for MLB starts coming into focus when you follow the money. Stewart’s six-year, $7 million deal (more with possible escalators) will pay him more than he was likely to earn via draft slot bonus and salary over the next few years. What’s more, he will then be a 25-year-old free agent eligible to sign with the team of his choosing.

Let’s just say, for the sake of theoretical arguments, you’re an teenager and someone is going to offer you money to play baseball because you’re really good. One offer guarantees you about $2 million up front and lets you travel overnight by bus to play for peanuts in front of small crowds. You get a raise to $600,000 or so should you actually make it to the show, and it could even lead to a contract of a few million dollars if you get to arbitration and are really successful.

The other offer guarantees you $7 million over the course of six years, affords you the opportunity to play in front of 30,000+ rabid fans in large stadiums in a different country with a different culture, food, and language. It also leaves you free to sign with whomever your heart desires once the contract is up if you’re ready to return to the states.

Oh, I forgot the kicker: Boras is playing the role of Morpheus. A more true-to-form adaptation would work better if he were Agent Smith and his client was named Anderson…wait, where were we? Back to baseball.

While not every American kid with first-round talent is going to go to Japan — they can’t right now anyway, since the league has something called “gaijin waku,” or “foreigner cap,” of four per team), it’s not just American kids who could essentially opt out of the draft. Teenagers from the Caribbean, Mexico, Central America, and South America could all decide that they like the idea of a guaranteed payout that gets them out of indentured servitude and into free agency sooner. They’d also reach free agency at a younger age, which is huge in baseball’s current economy.

The other factor here is that Stewart is a pitcher. Pitchers have a much higher rate of injury and thus face a more difficult path to the majors. That guaranteed money could look even better than banking on what might be, especially if success gets you to the same point in the end. If you pitch well in Japan, someone is liable to give you a big contract at 25 years old. Sticking with your draft slot would see you still pitching for whomever held your rights as a player.

MLB has come under fire recently for their gross underpayment of their minor leaguers, with virtually everyone still in possession of a soul and/or a conscience siding with players over billionaire owners. And why wouldn’t they, when players are expected to train, eat nutritiously, and continue to work year after year for very little compensation under less than ideal workplace conditions?

Granted, Japanese baseball isn’t for every kid from the States (or abroad, for that matter) and there are a lot of differences that make it difficult for American ballplayers to stick over there. But if this becomes an option for first round talent to circumvent MLB’s draconian draft and arbitration system, it could mean changing the diaper of Rob Manfred’s $10 billion baby.

Could this be the metaphorical crack in the foundation that forces MLB to really take a hard look at what they pay their minor leaguers and how they set up arbitration? Doubtful, but if one guy turns into two, and two turns into 10…well, then you’d have a trend and a serious problem for Mr. Manfred.

But hey, let’s worry about games lasting more than 3 hours here.

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