Exclusion of Japanese phenom Rocky Sasaki from the international draft

He could have been the best pitcher ever to come from the same Japanese prefecture that produced Shohei Otani.

He’s hitting an average of 13 batters per nine innings, and his fastball speed is approaching 102 mph.

He put in a perfect game this season and nearly made another in his next start, thwarted only by his team’s inability to score and his manager’s decision to send him off after eight flawless innings.

Just 20 years old R Ski Sasaki may be the best pitcher not to be at Dodger Stadium for the July 19 All-Star Game. He’s still in Japan, a week later he’s due to represent the Chiba Lotte Marines in the Nippon Professional Baseball edition.

“I would like him to come here as soon as possible,” San Diego Padres right-hander Yu Darvish said in Japanese.

Darvish is not alone.

However, the already modest chance of Sasaki making it to the big leagues in the next four years could all but disappear if Major League Baseball succeeds. implementation of the international project.

Under the current MLB proposal, NPB players under the age of 25 with less than six years of service will continue to be classified as amateurs. In addition to limiting their ability to earn, the designation would expose them to international conscription.

“That would be a bummer,” said the National League team principal.

Sasaki, or any other NPB player in his place, is presumed to be less likely to make the financial sacrifices needed to hasten his promotion to the big leagues if he fails to pick his team. Otani signed with the Angels for just $2.3 million ahead of the 2018 season but was able to pick a destination.

For what it’s worth, the league is open to talks with the players’ union about new thresholds that would make players exempt from the draft, said a person familiar with MLB thinking, Jorge Castillo of The Times. This is the beginning.

Major League Baseball is Major League Baseball because it has the best players in the world. This is his selling point.

One would think that the league would like to make it easier for elite players to come here, rather than make it harder for them. You would think that after what Otani has achieved here and abroad, he would do whatever it takes to open his doors to a talented and popular player like Sasaki.

Sasaki, whose name is pronounced Rocky, has been famous in Japan since high school days.

He hails from Iwate, the same rural prefecture where Otani and Yusei Kikuchi of the Toronto Blue Jays were born.

Sasaki lost his father and paternal grandparents during the tsunami that hit the northern part of the Japanese mainland in 2011. His childhood home was razed to the ground.

In high school, he broke the Ōtani High School National Speed ​​Record by throwing a fastball at 163 km/h or 101.3 mph. Four teams selected him in the first round of the 2019 NPB Draft, and the Marines granted him the rights through a lottery.

Sasaki, who had hand problems in high school, mysteriously did not play in NPB or minor league games in his first year as a professional. The Marines said they were focused on building his physique.

Last year, at the age of 19, Sasaki was an immediate success. By the time they made the postseason, he was a starter in the Marines’ first game.

He turned into the league’s top pitcher this year, going 6-1 with an earned run average of 1.48 in his first 13 starts. Sasaki set an NPB record by batting 13 consecutive times during a perfect game against the Orix Buffaloes in his third start. His 19 strikeouts were the most in league history.

In his next start, he threw eight more pitches against the Nippon-Ham Fighters. At 0-0, Sasaki was removed from the game by his manager, former major league player Tadahito Iguchi.

Early season performances prompted one senior major league official to compare Sasaki’s fastball to Jacob de Grom’s and declare that Sasaki was already one of the top five pitchers in the world.

One Major League Talent Evaluator who recently observed Sasaki was more restrained in his praise.

“What worries me is that it’s predominantly a fastball split right now,” said the appraiser, who spoke on condition of anonymity because his team forbids him from sharing his observations. “I don’t know if he’s ready now. He dominates there because he has an excellent fastball. it [comparable to] Kevin Gausman”.

Gausman was an All-Star last year.

The big concern is how he will eventually make it to the big leagues. While the highly acclaimed Kodai Senga is expected to move to the United States this winter and Yoshinobu Yamamoto is believed to follow a year later, major league teams have already had their eyes on Sasaki.

The current system does not offer the Marines much incentive to send Sasaki to a post before he turns 25. His amateur classification means he can only sign with the minor leagues and his bonus comes from his team’s international bonus fund. The Marines would be paid 20% of that amount as a release fee, so if Sasaki signed for $2.3 million like Ohtani did, they would only get $460,000.

Some industry insiders hoped that the creation of the international draft and the subsequent elimination of the international bonus pool could prompt MLB to make changes to its placement agreement with the NPB, thereby opening the door for Sasaki to come to the United States in the next few years. But, in any case, the opposite could happen, when a slightly open door is about to be completely closed.

MLB advocates restrictions on young players as mechanisms to ensure the long-term health of the NPB as well as a respectful relationship between the two leagues. There is something in this. However, attitudes have changed in Japan, where fears of a talent drain are now outweighed by the desire to watch the best in the country challenge themselves at the toughest stages, as evidenced by Japan’s major sports newspapers already speculating about how much Sasaki might be worth. . to MLB teams.

What’s more, in recent years, the NPB has proven to be unbreakable: the popularity of baseball in Japan has made the league immune to the most painful exits, from Ichiro Suzuki to Otani.

It’s really about cost control. MLB wanted to cap the fees its teams pay their NPB counterparts after the Texas Rangers wrote a $51.7 million check to the Fighters for Darvish’s rights. To compensate NPB teams for artificially hushing up transfer fees, MLB has made it virtually impossible for its teams to capture Japan with its most promising young talents.

MLB must remember what its brand is, a global platform for the best of the best. Sasaki may not be one yet, but he may soon be. When he does, he should rock here, no matter the price. To do this, you need to change the rules.