Yu Darvish and the Perils of Japanese Baseball's Posting System

The only way for Japan's best pitcher to play in the U.S. is through a costly, complicated negotiation process. Will it work this time?



Plenty of big-time baseball players like Prince Fielder, Jose Reyes, and Albert Pujols have been or are still on the market this off-season. But no one has had teams and fans frothing at the mouth more than Yu Darvish. Bids for American major league baseball clubs to negotiate exclusively with the star Japanese pitcher concluded last week, and now fans are waiting to see where—if anywhere—he'll end up.

Baseball scribes have tracked the minutiae of Darvish's potential move from Japan to the U.S. for months. Even a picture of Texas Rangers general manager Jon Daniels scouting him in Japan this summer was enough to generate news.

The 6-foot-5 son of an Iranian father and Japanese mother has dominated hitters in Japan with surgical control and an arsenal of seven pitches. So much so that he's projected as a front-end starter in the majors and even earned comparisons to Pedro Martinez.

"I also heard he once defeated Godzilla with one arm tied behind his back. Well, not really, but that's the way his myth is starting to be built by the breathless coverage," wrote Toronto Sun columnist Raju Mudhar.

Darvish's agent Don Nomura tweeted Monday that an announcement by his client's club will be made tomorrow morning Japan time, which means the bid winner could be revealed as early as Monday evening in the U.S. Multiple teams have submitted bids, and the Toronto Blue Jays are rumored to be the front-runners. Darvish's team, the Nippon Ham Fighters, has until Tuesday 5 p.m Eastern to decide whether to accept the bid. Doing so would reveal the winning team and allow Darvish's camp to negotiate a deal within the posting rule's 30-day window.

Can the two sides come to an agreement under the widely derided posting system?

Maybe not. Darvish's agent Nomura is no stranger to challenging the rules of U.S.-Japanese baseball relations. What's more, agents are criticizing the restrictive rules because of their limited bargaining power. And some major league clubs, burned by high salaries on an underperforming investment, are more cautious than ever to commit large sums to Japanese players who have yet to set foot in an American ballpark.

None of that bodes well for the 25-year-old Darvish, despite his ascension as one of the most coveted pitchers this off-season. Nomura, together with Arn Tellem, will represent the two-time Pacific League MVP, who has a 93-38 career record and 1.99 ERA over seven seasons in the Nippon Professional Baseball league.

But if last year's failed negotiations with the second-best pitcher in Japan (only to Darvish) and the Oakland Athletics are any indicator, it may be a difficult path. 

The posting system was implemented in 1998 as a way for Japanese teams to receive compensation for players who have yet to become free agents but wish to sign with a major league team. It was adopted in part because Nomura found contract loopholes that allowed clients like Hideo Nomo and Alfonso Soriano to enter the majors by "retiring" from the NPB. And he continued to incense Japanese officials by arranging Hideki Irabu's transfer from the Chiba Lotte Marines to the New York Yankees instead of the San Diego Padres.

Players who had less than nine years of professional experience in Japan, like Ichiro Suzuki, Kei Igawa, and Matsuzaka, have come to the states through the system. But the system came under increased scrutiny in Japan last year when talks between Nomura's client Hisashi Iwakuma and the Athletics quickly degenerated. Oakland won negotiating rights after paying a $19.1 million posting fee to the right-hander's Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles. But the two sides were far apart in their expectations for what Iwakuma's salary should be. Nomura said the Athletics didn't budge from an initial offer of 4 years, $15.25 million. Iwakuma, an All-Star pitcher who won the 2008 Eiji Sawamura award - Japan's equivalent of the Cy Young - was slighted by the take-it-or-leave it offer. His agent said the Athletics' negotiations were "insincere," leading many in the Japanese media to speculate that Oakland made a bid to block rivals from signing Iwakuma.

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Akito Yoshikane is a freelance writer based in Chicago.

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