Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 23, 2019

This Round Goes To The Players

Is a 19-year-old right-handed pitcher for a Florida community college about to upend the Great Game’s collective bargaining agreement? The short answer to that question is “no,” but the news this week, first reported by Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic, that Carter Stewart’s agent Scott Boras had negotiated a six-year, $7 million contract with the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks of Nippon Professional Baseball, Japan’s equivalent of MLB, at the very least served as a warning shot across the bow of commissioner Rob Manfred’s four-masted management flagship that players and their agents are finally finding ways to strike back against the terms of the current CBA that have swung heavily in management’s favor over the past few seasons.

As a senior in high school Stewart was rated one of the top prospects in last June’s amateur draft and was eventually chosen with the eighth pick by Atlanta. However, Atlanta sharply reduced its signing bonus offer to him, citing evidence of a wrist injury. Draft bonuses are tightly regulated by slot, and Stewart ultimately chose to pass on an offer that was less than half the $4.98 million allocated to a number eight pick. Instead he enrolled at Eastern Florida State College, where he made thirteen starts, compiling a 2-2 record with a 1.70 ERA and 108 strikeouts. That made Stewart a likely second round pick next month on the boards of most draft analysts, meaning he was probably in line to receive even less than the $2 million he was offered by Atlanta twelve months ago.

Had he gone through the draft and been awarded something close to $2 million, Stewart would have been smart to bank it against future needs. Like virtually every other draftee in the second round or later, he would have probably started at his new team’s short-season Class A affiliate. Assuming he did well and followed a typical progression, one year later Stewart would likely be wearing the uniform of a AA team, with Class AAA following in 2021, and perhaps a callup to the big leagues sometime after enough games of the 2022 season had been played to prevent him from accruing a full year of service time during his first major league season. That calendar in turn would tie Stewart to the team that picked him until after the 2028 season. He’d earn at best perhaps $10,000 per year while in the minors and would almost certainly start at the major league minimum, currently $555,000, once he finally became a big league ballplayer.

That’s the structure of the current CBA, which of course the Players Association agreed to. But that agreement was always based on a tacit understanding that the reward for players toiling in the minors for less than the minimum wage and enduring years of team control in the majors was free agency, when that same player could entertain bids for multi-year contracts from multiple teams in an open and competitive market. It’s of course that back end of a player’s salary arc that front offices, armed with reams of data pointing to steady decline in performance after age thirty, have largely shut down in recent years, especially for those who are not superstars.

Now Stewart and Boras have found a way to improve his earnings in the near term and short-circuit the current heavily team-favorable negotiating calendar. In the best of worlds and assuming a significant bump in the minimum salary, Stewart might earn $4 million including that theoretical $2 million signing bonus over the next six years. His deal with the Hawks promises him $3 million more over the same time period. More important, Stewart would still not be eligible for free agency at the end of that time. But under MLB’s rules, at the end of his contract in Japan, Stewart should qualify as a “foreign professional” since he will have spent “all or part of six seasons” playing in an “MLB-recognized foreign professional league.” That means that at age 25, three years sooner than under the typical scenario outlined about, Stewart would be eligible to participate in the posting system between MLB and NPB and come back to America as a free agent, as players have done from Ichiro Suzuki to Shohei Ohtani.

It is merely stating the obvious to note that in May 2019 all that is little more than fantasy and wild-eyed speculation. Of every position on the field, none is so difficult to predict as the future of young pitchers. Stewart could get hurt. He could lose his command, or just generally regress. He could find after a few months as a stranger in a strange land that a foreign culture is simply not worth a fat bank account. Only with the passage of time will fans learn how the Carter Stewart story turns out. But it is worth noting that he signed only after an extended visit to Japan with his family, where he got both a taste of the culture and a look at the Hawks’ facilities. So while the logistics of moving 7,500 miles from home in order to play ball mean that there will be no flood of young would-be draftees decamping for Japan, neither should the deal Boras has struck be dismissed as a publicity stunt.

Rather it should be seen for the welcome news that it is: a rare blow from the players’ side against a monolithic management that has increasingly subverted the terms of the current collective bargaining agreement to its favor. The 19-year-old and his agent haven’t upended the CBA, but they have reminded owners that the players can also find ways to move the system, at least a little bit, back into balance. For that every member of the Major League Baseball Players Association owes Carter Stewart thanks.

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Responses

  1. From an outsider’s POV this young man has nothing to lose with his decision to go to Japan. What a fantastic opportunity to be immersed in a progressive society with ancient traditions, and get paid to do it. I wish him well.
    Ω

    • Agreed Allan. Quite apart from the financial considerations it seems like a great opportunity for Stewart. While I don’t foresee a rush of young players choosing to go this route, it also presents an intriguing alternative to the tight control that MLB likes to exercise over the draft.

      Thanks as always,
      M-

      • it always seems to come down to control. Who has it, and what can be done about it?
        Ω


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