Carter Stewart will begin his professional baseball career by taking an uncommon route.
The 19-year old pitcher from Florida has signed a six-year contract with the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks of Japan’s Pacific League that will guarantee him as much as $7 million. Baseball fans are used to seeing Japanese players come to the major leagues and have great success. It hasn’t been attempted the other way around until now.
“The more I talked about it, the more it came to me that it was a great idea and I loved it,” Stewart said. “I do hope that I create a new opportunity for young amateur players to have a different path. I don’t know what is going to happen, but I hope one day someone says this was a great idea.”
The right-hander was selected eighth overall by the Atlanta Braves in last year’s draft from Eau Gallie High School in Melbourne, Fla., but negotiations were complicated by a wrist injury.
The Major League Baseball Players Association claimed the Braves failed to make Stewart an offer of at least 40 percent of the slot value for the pick, which would have made him a free agent, but they lost the grievance.
Stewart would have been eligible for this week’s amateur draft. He was 2-2 with a 1.70 ERA and 108 strikeouts in 74 1/3 innings this season at Eastern Florida State College.
“When the American system failed him, this system allowed a far better choice and opportunity,” said Scott Boras, who is Stewart’s agent. “This is the beginning of where Japan may be for American youth — the land of the rising arms.”
Stewart said conversations about pitching in Japan started at the beginning of the year when Fukuoka expressed interest. Team executives watched him pitch and talks began to ramp up in April. Once Stewart and his parents visited Japan to see the country and tour Fukuoka’s facilities, negotiations increased.
“It was a long process between getting back to baseball and making a decision. It came at an awkward time,” he said. “In the end, I made the decision that was best for me at the time. It came down to where I wanted to play baseball.”
Boras said Stewart’s signing provides another option besides heading back to school and re-entering the draft if a player wants to pursue a career.
“This process has opened a lot of eyes. Families are going to look at it and listen much differently because it wasn't on the landscape before and now it is,” Boras said. “We’ll see a lot of different opportunities in Japan and Korea because those are established leagues. It's a real development culture.
“I’m not saying our system is upside down because it develops a lot of successful pitchers. But their system adapts very well to collegiate and high school patterns.”
Stewart still could be positioned to cash in as a free agent much sooner than those who go through the draft. Players as young as 25 from foreign professional leagues can be eligible to be posted as free agents with no restrictions.
Stewart will be in Japan Monday for a news conference. He will then report to the Hawks’ development complex once he obtains a Japanese work visa.
He will pitch in Japan’s farm system the remainder of this season. Hawks general manager Sugihiko Mikasa said it is possible Stewart could pitch in Japan’s big leagues next year.
Even though this is the first time an American player is coming up through the Japanese minors, Mikasa said the Hawks have had success with international pitchers developing in their system, such as Cuba’s Livan Moinelo and Venezuela’s Robert Suarez.
“We look forward to this opportunity. We do have confidence in bringing up and developing players from all over the world,” Mikasa said through an interpreter.