Notable MLB Free Agents Sign During Lockdown in Japan and South Korea; will bigger names follow?

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In 1987, when the Major League Baseball owners colluded against the players to stifle salaries, Bob Horner took matters into his own hands. Horner, a former All-Star and Rookie of the Year award winner, had 54 homered and a 121 OPS + for the Atlanta Braves in the 1985 and 1986 seasons with the Yakult Swallows. The Swallows, part of Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball League, were ready to do what no MLB club would dare to do: pay Horner as much as he thought he was worth, or nearly $ 2 million.

“The Japanese called and made a good offer,” he said, according to an article in the Los Angeles Times. “I thought I’d sit out all year.”

Horner didn’t enjoy his time in Japan. He later turned down a multi-year offer from the Swallows to return to the majors, where he sustained a shoulder injury a year later that ended his career. Even so, fans of a certain age may have thought of Horner once or twice in this off-season. With the MLB franchise owners locking players out on December 2nd, the hot oven was wiped out. (“Any contact with major league players or agents on any subject is forbidden,” is the league’s instruction to front office staff.) The only transactional message devoured in time since was the steady drumbeat of the MLB – Players who have pushed their way from America’s shores for more safety in Japan’s NPB or the Korean Baseball Organization, the 2nd and 3rd leagues of the world.

On the holiday weekend alone, the third baseman saw Rio Ruiz, a veteran of parts of six seasons of the big league, and Chris Gittens, who appeared in 16 games with the New York Yankees, sign with Asian league teams. You join a growing list of the deceased that includes Yasiel Puig, Freddy Galvis, Ivan Nova, and so on. Former top Pirates contender Gregory Polanco was also reportedly close to a deal in Japan. It is enough to ask a casual observer: is an exodus afoot and even bigger names could flock overseas if MLB’s lockdown continues into the spring?

“I’m not sure if that’s the case,” an Asian league scout told CBS Sports when asked if the players were more willing to move to Japan or South Korea. “I’d like to have it, I thought it could be, but it looks a bit ‘business as usual’ to me.”

As for the Scout’s point, the most notable players to travel to Asia faced extenuating circumstances upon their departure. Puig, for example, struggled to get an MLB deal even before he settled a civil lawsuit claiming he had sexually assaulted a woman. Galvis, meanwhile, signed a deal that could gross him up to $ 6 million over two seasons, a sizeable amount more than he would have received in the majors. As for Polanco … well, even MLB front office guys aren’t sure how to explain that.

“I would suspect that the profiles of the bigger names in general are not as valued here as they used to be,” said an analyst of the players who have signed abroad. “However, I’m not sure what to make of the Polanco signing.”

Ruiz, Gittens, and most of the other recognizable names booking international flights are the kind MLB would have left during a normal off-season anyway. What makes their departures remarkable this winter is that there are no MLB activities that otherwise overshadow or break the rhythm. Take into account how the talent pipeline is only flowing in one direction – Japanese starters Masahiro Tanaka and Tomoyuki Sugano both waived the opt-out clauses that would have allowed them to join the MLB, and star-outfielder Seiya Suzuki’s seconding process is just getting started after that the lockout will be completed – and it’s easy to see that MLB’s talent pool has been depleted at an unsustainable pace.

So what would happen if the lockout dragged on into the spring and perhaps even jeopardized an MLB’s chances of a normal show or regular season – could a player emerge with more prestige than the modern Horner?

“I don’t think bigger talent will move overseas,” said the analyst. “It’s just a strange opportunity for Asian clubs at the moment.”

“The uncertainty about what the market will look like after the lockdown is the clearest reason some of these fringe players are going overseas,” an agency source said. “The top of the market free agents will still have teams chasing them, but the fringe types have no leverage and the teams will move through that group of players quickly so more people are looking for security.”

It is worth noting that not all types of fringes are considered to be Asia that Aim. According to multiple sources told CBS Sports, a Houston Astros player at the bottom of his 40-man list was on the verge of an agreement to play overseas before asking his front office to buy him in with other MLB teams. The Astros couldn’t find a taker prior to the lockout, but the player still seemed to be deciding against continuing his movement across the ocean.

Even if multitudes of MLB players wanted to keep it to the MLB owners by signing in Japan or South Korea, both leagues have taken measures to protect against an exodus. KBO limits the number of foreign-born players allowed to join the roster and limits the earning potential of international players in the first year to just $ 1 million. The NPB isn’t as strict on how many overseas players a team can sign (the KBO cap will technically be increased in 2023 with the addition of minor league seats), but it does limit the number of them that can play in one specific game can be active. Of course, such legislation will prevent a flood, but it won’t stop some players from considering an Asian league – Japan in particular – if the suspension lasts long enough.

What is certain is that no player who joins NPB or KBO this winter will take the same risk that Horner took when he signed with the Swallows. Enough players have returned to the MLB with improved stocks after stays abroad – be it Nick Martínez, Josh Lindblom, Eric Thames – to see this as a viable route to payday.

“The amount of information and data that teams receive about players abroad is greater than ever before,” said the agency’s source. “It’s pretty easy for a man to bet on his stuff and go to Japan or wherever and double the amount of money that was offered to him in the States in one season.”


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