The Braves selected high school pitcher Carter Stewart with the No. 8 overall pick in last year’s MLB amateur draft but didn’t sign him. Now Stewart reportedly is set to play professionally in Japan. This is an intriguing development that I’m hoping creates a viable option for US. prospects looking to avoid MLB’s limits on their salaries early in their careers.
ESPN’s Jeff Passan reports that Stewart and the Hawks of the Japanese Pacific League agreed to a six-year deal worth more than $7 million. Compare that to the $2 million the Braves offered Stewart after drafting him (the AJC’s Gabriel Burns reported that the team had concerns about Stewart’s wrist injury). The $7 million is more than the signing bonus slot value for all but the top three picks in the 2019 draft, according to FanGraphs.
If Stewart were selected early in the second round of next month’s draft, as projected, he would have signed for a bonus of about $1.6 to $2 million. Obviously, the $5 million difference is a huge incentive for Stewart, 19, to go play in Japan. The deal could pay off for him on the back end, too.
He’ll be 25-years old at the end of his deal with the Hawks. According to Passan, under the current rules Stewart would be eligible to sign a free-agent contract with an MLB team via the “posting” system. That’s three years earlier than Stewart could expect to become a free agent if he signed as a draft pick.
Essentially, Stewart and agent Scott Boras have found a way to get around MLB’s restrictive salary system for prospects. It starts with the draft, where players are signed for bonuses that are multiple millions of dollars less than what they’d get in an open market. It continues in the minors, where players earn monthly salaries from $1,160 to $2,150 before clubhouse dues and taxes and typically aren’t paid for spring training.
Once prospects show they are ready for the majors, MLB teams game the system. If Stewart signed with an MLB team, he could expect his big-league debut to be delayed so his team could control his rights for one year longer at a below-market salary. This has become a common tactic for MLB teams. The Braves did it with Ronald Acuna last year.
To get around all those restrictions, Stewart had to be willing to go play overseas. That sounds great to 19-year old me. It may not be appealing for other teenagers.
Minor league baseball in the U.S. is hardly glamorous but, in Japan, Stewart will have to adjust to a different baseball culture. If he makes it to the JPL, he’ll have to deal with a smaller strike zone and what some former players allege is bias by umpires against foreign-born players. There’s a chance Stewart won’t get a lucrative deal as an MLB free agent.
But if the difference between playing here and there is $5 million now and potentially millions more later, then I’d expect other prospects to at least give it serious consideration. If more prospects head to Japan, it would give prospects leverage and put pressure on MLB to increase compensation for prospects.
MLB, which pays minor league salaries, already was in discussions with the organization that governs the minor leagues to improve salaries and working conditions. Congress undercut labor, as usual, when it inserted a provision into last year’s spending law that excluded minor league players from minimum wage and overtime laws. MLB lobbied Congress for the favor after it faced lawsuits from minor league players.
Japanese baseball is outside the reach of U.S. crony capitalism and MLB salary rules for prospects. Here’s hoping Stewart is the first of many American baseball prospects to take advantage of a new, fairer market.
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