Why Japanese baseball stars rarely are destined for Detroit

Detroit News

Shohei Ohtani, a once-a-century, two-way talent from Japan, shines among MLB’s superstars in 2022, working for the Los Angeles Angels.

Ohtani’s countryman, Ichiro Suzuki, began his long and majestic MLB career in Seattle, later moving to New York and Miami.

Hisashi Iwakuma, a star pitcher who threw a no-hitter before he hurt his shoulder in 2017, also started in Seattle, as did another skilled pitcher, Kazuhiro Sasaki.

Hideki Matsui and Masahiro Tanaka (Yankees). Hiroki Kuroda (Dodgers, then Yankees). Daisuke Matsuzaka and Koji Uehara (Red Sox).

A trend forms, more than coincidental: Top incoming MLB talent from Japan — and from Asia at-large — tends to prefer signing with West Coast teams. Or, if an East Coast club is chosen, it typically is a more expansive cultural city such as New York or Boston, which also, and not coincidentally, specializes in higher payrolls and more room for foreign investment.

Detroit? Other Midwest or American heartland towns?

Rarely does it happen, a player leaving his native Japan, as the Tigers confirm.

Once, and only once, have the Tigers aggressively sought a native Japanese talent: Masao Kida, who in 1998 was signed for $3 million and who in 51 games for the Tigers in 1999-2000 had a 6.42 ERA.

Hideo Nomo (signed originally with the Dodgers) already was established when he arrived in Detroit for a lone season in 2000. The Tigers also employed a Taiwanese pitcher, Fu-Te Ni, who threw in 58 games from 2009-10.

But that pretty much is the extent of the Tigers’ forays into the Asian market: Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan.

“It’s about comfort for the players — their support system around them,” said Tom Moore, the Tigers’ director of international operations. “It’s an adjustment to the U.S., so there can be a level of comfort in (West Coast, East Coast cities). The priority for them is to have that comfort area.

“But it’s also circumstantial. It’s extremely circumstantial.”

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Money, of course, also can be circumstantial. And until 2014, when rules changed for MLB teams chasing Japanese talent, the heavy dollars essential to signing major Asian talent flowed mostly from those coastal MLB clubs.

Before 2014, MLB teams interested in signing a player from the Nippon Baseball League, required those players to be “posted” — essentially put up for sale to MLB teams before they hit free agency, which in Japan comes after nine years.

Interested clubs placed blind bids, and the highest bidder won exclusive rights to negotiate with a player such as Matsuzaka, Matsui, pitcher Yu Darvish, etc.

The Red Sox paid a posting fee of $51.1 in 2006 million to sign Matsuzaka, then handed him a $60-million, six-year contract. The Rangers paid nearly identical money 2012 to win the rights to sign Darvish ($51.5 million), then likewise tacked on a six-year, $60 million payout exclusively to a right-handed pitcher who now plays for the Padres.

The system changed in 2014, with a $20 million posting fee allowing any team to negotiate with any Japanese player who was made available.

Posting fees in 2022 remain capped at $20 million. Theoretically, it makes Japanese talent more affordable for more teams. Theoretically, anyway.

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Budgets within MLB’s heartland are, as a rule, significantly thinner. And then come the cultural realities cited by Moore, which can be daunting:

How many Japanese might reside in a pursuing team’s city? How much commonality might be found when the transition to American life, and competition, can be staggering?

The Tigers generally have steered clear of Japan, although Moore says there was a recent exception: Seiya Suzuki, a right-handed hitting outfielder the Cubs landed in March with a five-year, $85-million deal.

“I had a lot of interest, liked him a lot,” Moore said of Suzuki, who has been helpful to the Cubs with four home runs and a .775 OPS entering Wednesday’s games. “But based on our needs, our primary focus was shortstop.

“That’s an example of how, in that sense, (ability to sign a Japanese player) is going to be circumstantial.”

The Tigers spent nearly a quarter-billion dollars on free agents during the past offseason, headed by their $140 million investment in shortstop Javier Báez.

Moore says there is another reason, financial, that smaller-market teams typically stayed away from the Japanese market. During those years when $50 million was charged up-front just to negotiate with a player — separate from a contract — only clubs with the fattest coffers tended to get involved.

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Now, even with a lower $20 million posting charge, and even if the contract might be digestible, most clubs are locked out.

“Cash flow,” Moore said, explaining that if Japanese free agents (early free agents) are offered to MLB clubs, they become available at the end of the calendar year — when money often isn’t there for MLB clubs whose owners tend to follow a fairly rigid business plan.

“Those are huge investments in terms of cash flow,” Moore said, “and that’s on top of paying the contract.”

The Tigers’ all-time Japanese roster is noteworthy in that it does not include home-run hammering Cecil Fielder.

Fielder, of course, was a California native who played in Japan in 1989 after four seasons with the Blue Jays. Later that year he signed with the Tigers and during the next two seasons blasted 95 homers and in each year was a runner-up for American League Most Valuable Player.

The money that induced Fielder to sign with the Tigers: $1.2 million.

Bargains, it seems, were more achievable in 1988.

Lynn Henning is a freelance writer and retired Detroit News sports reporter.

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