Carter Stewart chose Japan rather than MLB, and maybe that means something

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You might remember the name Carter Stewart from around this time last year, when the then-18-year-old was drafted out of high school by the Braves. Stewart was Atlanta’s first-round pick, eighth-overall, but refused to sign with them after they reduced their offered signing bonus from around the $4.98 million slot value of that pick to around $2 million, citing concern with his wrist from his physical as the reason.

This might not have been just some innocent misunderstanding or concern, either: it felt, to some, like Atlanta was going extra hard on something that very well could be nothing from a physical, in order to squeeze money out of Stewart that could be applied to another prospect in the draft or simply not spent. The Major League Baseball Players Association went so far as to file a grievance on Stewart’s behalf, and he’s not even a member of the players’ union. The Braves wouldn’t be the first team to pull this kind of stunt, nor will they be the last.

Atlanta offered just enough money to Stewart to ensure they would have the ninth-overall pick in the 2019 draft, gaining some recompense for their cautious decision/fuckery, but Stewart was expected to just sit and wait a year before re-entering the draft and hoping his physical went better this time, or that no one tried to screw him this time around. Instead, he’s gone a completely different route: Stewart has agreed to terms with Nippon Professional Baseball’s Fukoaka Softbank Hawks on a six-year deal worth north of $7 million.

It’s a fascinating decision, and one with potential serious labor implications, too. Stewart, were he drafted again by an MLB team in June, would have received a bonus similar to or maybe even lesser than what he rejected last summer. Then, he would have been set to earn paltry minor-league wages until making it to the majors — if he ever got that far. Instead, he’s guaranteed himself over $7 million over six years, and, if his career in Japan is a success, he can either re-sign there on another contract that will pay him well, or make a move to come back to the United States and Major League Baseball, this time with far more negotiating power and an exemption from the international free agent signing spending limits, given he’d be old enough (25) and with enough professional experience (six years).

As Baseball America’s J.J. Cooper points out, Stewart would need to speed through the minors in Japan to get to NPB immediately in order to earn those six years of “top-level” experience, but he could also always re-sign on a short-term deal to get his six years and make it worth his while in a return to the states.

Even with that potential roadblock, this is a fascinating decision, and one that could potentially be used as a negotiating tool for other drafted players and amateurs. Now that a teenager has gone to Japan, has outright chosen that route rather than going with the normal routine of being drafted in America and sent to the minors for years, it can happen again.

It can only happen so often, though, as NPB teams are allowed just four foreign-born players on their active big-league roster, and some of those end up being older players, veterans of MLB who eventually head to Japan. There are also just 12 teams in NPB, meaning there are 48 total slots for foreign-born players. However, there is one workaround here, in that there is no organizational limit: Japanese teams could sign all the Carter Stewarts they’d like if they’re planning on developing them in the minors for a time. A mini pipeline could be created by each team, which could cut into MLB’s dominance of not just America’s amateur market, but also that of places like the Dominican and Venezuela and so on, too.

It wouldn’t cause damage to MLB on some large level — it’s kind of incomprehensible how many prospects there are out there compared to how many actually end up making it to the bigs, so there are plenty of other players to choose from — but all it might take to get MLB’s attention is losing a few prospects around the world who they believe they have the rights to, given the league’s standing in the world as the destination for the very best out there. And that’s the kind of concern that could help sway some negotiations, or force MLB to change how they handle business with amateurs or minor-league players, or both.

Stewart is just one guy, of course, so there’s no guarantee of anything, not even his own career or success, never mind a massive upheaval of the established amateur-to-pro pipelines in existence around the baseball world. However, if Nippon Professional Baseball decides to change how they handle foreign-born players, then the floodgates could open up. And as Jeff Passan pointed out in his own piece on Stewart, there are already owners in favor of loosening those restrictions in order to focus on building a league that can compete with MLB instead of one that is mostly just Japan-based in every way.

We’re not there yet. It’ll take a changing of the mindset of America’s amateurs as well as the Japanese teams that could sign them in order to make this about more than just Carter Stewart and his belief that the guaranteed cash will be worth the culture shock. Here’s the thing, though: international free agents do this all the time to come to America and MLB, and the money, for most of them, is awful. American amateurs can handle it, they just have to realize that they can, and that they should.

  • Last week, Deadspin published a piece of mine looking at why MLB wants an international draft.
  • More Than Baseball is an organization focused on improving the working and living conditions of minor-league baseball players, and they recently launched a GoFundMe to help with that goal. As I’ve said about More Than Baseball before, it’s great that they exist because someone has to take care of these players, but it should be MLB doing it, not some outside org cleaning up their mess. Until that time, though, this is the support players have.
  • That’s a good segue into Sean Roberts’ piece at Hardball Times, on whether MiLB players can get paid without the power of a union behind them.
  • Jarrett Seidler looked at the various excuses for why Craig Kimbrel and Dallas Keuchel remain free agents in mid-May for Baseball Prospectus.
  • Get those reader mailbag questions in if you have them! If I get enough questions, I’ll post one next week before month’s end.

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