Back in 1987, with Major League Baseball’s owners colluding against the players to suppress salaries, Bob Horner took matters into his own hands. Horner, a former All-Star and Rookie of the Year Award recipient, had homered 54 times and posted a 121 OPS+ for the Atlanta Braves in the 1985 and 1986 seasons, making it all the more jarring when he agreed to a one-year contract with the Yakult Swallows. The Swallows, part of Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball league, were willing to do what no MLB club would deign itself to do: pay Horner what he believed he was worth, or nearly $2 million.
“The Japanese called and made a good offer,” he said, according to a Los Angeles Times article. “I was at the point of thinking I was going to sit out the whole year.”
Horner didn’t enjoy his time in Japan. He later turned down a multi-year offer from the Swallows to return to the majors, where he suffered a career-ending shoulder injury a year later. Still, fans of a certain age might have thought about Horner once or twice already this offseason. With MLB’s franchise owners locking out the players on Dec. 2, the hot stove has been snuffed out. (“Any contact with major league players or agents on any topic is prohibited,” is the league’s instruction to front-office personnel.) The only transaction news to devour in the time since has been the steady drumbeat of MLB players pushing off America’s shores for more certainty in Japan’s NPB or the Korean Baseball Organization, the world’s No. 2 and 3 leagues.
The holiday weekend alone saw third baseman Rio Ruiz, a veteran of parts of six big-league seasons, and Chris Gittens, who appeared in 16 games with the New York Yankees, sign with Asian league teams. They join a growing list of departees that includes Yasiel Puig, Freddy Galvis, Ivan Nova, and so on. Former Pirates top prospect Gregory Polanco was also reportedly close to a deal in Japan. It’s enough to make a casual observer wonder: is there an exodus underway, and could even bigger names flock overseas if MLB’s lockout endures into the spring?
“I’m actually not sure that is the case,” an Asian league scout told CBS Sports when asked if players seemed more willing to move to Japan or South Korea. “I’d like it to be, I thought it might be, but it looks a little ‘business as usual’ to me.”
To the scout’s point, the most notable players heading to Asia have had extenuating circumstances surrounding their exits. Puig, for example, had trouble landing a MLB contract even before he settled a civil lawsuit alleging he had sexually assaulted a woman. Galvis, meanwhile, signed a contract that could pay him up to $6 million over two seasons, a fair amount more than he would’ve received in the majors. As for Polanco … well, even MLB front-office types aren’t sure how to explain that one.
“I would guess that the profiles of the bigger names, generally, aren’t profiles that are valued here as much as they used to be,” an analyst said of the players who have signed overseas. ” I’m not sure what to make of the Polanco signing though.”
Ruiz, Gittens, and most of the other recognizable names booking international flights are the kinds who would have left MLB during a normal offseason anyway. What makes their exits notable this winter is how there’s no MLB activity going on to otherwise overshadow or break up the rhythm. Factor in how the talent pipeline is flowing only one way — Japanese starters Masahiro Tanaka and Tomoyuki Sugano both forewent opt-out clauses that would’ve allowed them to join MLB, and star outfielder Seiya Suzuki’s posting process won’t be completed until after the lockout — and it’s easy to perceive MLB’s talent pool as draining at an unsustainable pace.
So, what would happen if the lockout were to drag on into the spring, and perhaps even threaten the chances of MLB having a standard exhibition or regular season — might a player of greater standing emerge as the modern-day Horner?
“I don’t think bigger talents will move overseas,” the analyst said, “it’s just a weird opportunity right now for the Asian clubs.”
“The uncertainty surrounding what the market is going to look like post-lockout is the clearest reason why some of these fringe players are going overseas,” an agency source said. “The top-of-the-market free agents are still going to have teams pursuing them, but the marginal types have zero leverage and teams are going to move through that group of players quickly so more guys are seeking security.”
It is worth noting that not all fringe types see Asia as the destination. According to what multiple sources told CBS Sports, a Houston Astros player toward the bottom of their 40-man roster was nearing an agreement to play overseas before asking his front office to shop him around to other MLB teams. The Astros didn’t find a taker ahead of the lockout, but the player still appeared to opt against proceeding with his move across the ocean.
Even if flocks of MLB players wanted to stick it to MLB’s owners by signing in Japan or South Korea, both leagues have measures in place that protect against an exodus. KBO limits the amount of foreign-born players who are allowed on rosters and caps the earning potential of first-year international players to just $1 million. NPB isn’t as strict about how many foreign players a team can sign (KBO’s cap will technically increase in 2023 with the addition of minor-league spots), but it does limit the number of them who can be active in any given game. Of course, such legislation will prevent a flood, but it won’t stop some players from considering an Asian league — specifically Japan — if the lockout goes long enough.
One thing that’s for certain is that no player leaving for NPB or KBO this winter is taking the same risk Horner did when he signed with the Swallows. Enough players have returned to MLB with improved stocks after stints overseas — be it Nick Martínez, Josh Lindblom, Eric Thames — to view it as a viable route to a payday.
“The amount of information and data teams are getting on players overseas is as vast as it’s ever been,” the agency source said. “It’s pretty easy for a guy to bet on his stuff and go to Japan, or wherever, and double the amount of money they were offered stateside in a season.”