It's not exactly cost-effective for Major League Baseball teams to sign star players out of Japan's Nippon Professional Baseball league. Some Japanese stars demand contracts worth millions, and teams have to watch a couple more million bucks go out the door because of the posting process.
We saw a record amount of cash leave the Texas Rangers' clutches this past offseason when they made a move to acquire star right-hander Yu Darvish. The Rangers won his exclusive negotiating rights with a bid of $51.7 million, and they ultimately signed him to a six-year contract worth about $60 million.
All told, he's an investment worth over $111 million.
Darvish started the year off very strong and his most recent start against the Houston Astros went very well, but he's spent much of his first major league season looking awfully beatable. And much like Daisuke Matsuzaka, the last big-money pitcher to come out of Japan, Darvish has struggled with his control.
According to Nick Cafardo of The Boston Globe, at least one MLB general manager is shaking his head at what the Rangers are getting for their $110 million-plus investment. There's a growing sense around the league that the scouting of Japanese players needs to change.
Here's the key part of Cafardo's report:
Teams are reassessing their commitment to scouting Japanese players. As one general manager put it to me, “Is all the money spent and devoted to scouting really yielding any great player? You’ve had Kei Igawa, Daisuke Matsuzaka, the kid from Minnesota [Tsuyoshi Nishioka], and really, is the money spent worth it?
“Yu Darvish was on everyone’s radar, and he started out well, but even with him, is he worth the $52 million posting fee, the contract, the money spent in scouting him?’’
It's the simplest of business dilemmas. Japanese players cost a lot of money to acquire, yet they have a tendency to fail in delivering results.
It's worth it to take a look at the track record of players who have commanded large posting fees (upwards of $5 million in this case). This table, which uses information from Baseball-Reference.com, should help.
|Player||Team||Posting Fee||Contract||Total||Current Status||Career WAR|
|Tsuyoshi Nishioka||Minnesota Twins||$5,329,000||3 years, $9.25 million||$14.579 million||Triple-A||-1.4|
|Kazuhisa Ishii||Los Angeles Dodgers||$11,260,000||4 years, $12.5 million||$23.76 million||Playing in Japan||0.8|
|Ichiro Suzuki||Seattle Mariners||$13,125,000||3 years, $14 million||$27.125 million||Still playing||54.7|
|Kei Igawa||New York Yankees||$26,000,194||5 years, $20 million||$46 million||Free agent||-0.2|
|Daisuka Matsuzaka||Boston Red Sox||$51,111,111.11||6 years, $52 million||$103 million||Still playing||10.8|
|Yu Darvish||Texas Rangers||$51,700,000||6 years, $60 million||$111.7 million||Still playing||1.5|
Note: WAR figures from FanGraphs.
So of the six Japanese players who have drawn big investments from MLB teams, only one has gone on to become a true star. There's still plenty of time and plenty of hope where Darvish is concerned, but even if he pans out, the track record for big-money Japanese players will remain poor.
And keep in mind we're only talking about posting fees and contracts. Major League Baseball teams also have to spend money to make sure they know what they're dealing with when it comes to Japanese stars. That means scouts, which means more money going out the door on salaries and expenses.
All the numbers lead back to that GM's simple question: Is it worth it?
Cafardo's answer: "The honest answer appears to be no, it’s not worth it. The money can be better spent in other areas of scouting."
My answer: It certainly can be worth it, but only if you find a player like Ichiro. And he's one of a kind.
So no, it's not worth it. The risk is too great, and the pile of money going out the door is too high more often than not.
There are only two things MLB teams can do.
One is to put more time and more effort into the scouting of Japanese players, which isn't as simple as it sounds. Obviously, the star players can only end up with one team when all is said and done, but they are scouted by many teams. Since we're talking about potential investments worth millions of dollars, it's fair to assume that teams are already thorough with their scouting.
To be even more thorough, teams would have to spend more money on scouting. The only way that would be worth it is if the increased effort led to an Ichiro-like steal.
Good luck with that.
The other thing MLB teams can do is wash their hands of the posting system altogether. This wouldn't mean they'd have to stop scouting Japanese players altogether, mind you, as it's possible to sign a Japanese player as a free agent (i.e. Kosuke Fukudome in 2007). It would only entail not getting involved in the bidding circus once a player is posted.
Not every team does get involved in a given bidding circus, of course, especially when it comes to supposed stars like Dice-K and Darvish. These guys are for the big spenders.
At this point, you have to wonder if the big spenders have learned their lesson. The Red Sox, Yankees and Dodgers have been burned by the posting system, and there's a chance the Rangers will be burned by it too.
The posting system would be on shaky ground if all of MLB's big-spending teams were to turn their backs on it, but that wouldn't be their problem. All they should care about is making smart investments, and there's simply too much evidence that suggests that players acquired via the posting system don't make for smart investments.
So play close attention to Yu Darvish throughout his career. There's a good chance he'll be MLB's last $100 million Japanese import.
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