What else can I write about? The Daisuke Matsuzaka deal is the talk of baseball and rightfully so.
The main thing I learned this week was that I had been mispronouncing his first name all along (not, to be fair, that I had said it to anyone who either knew or cared who he was). Dice-K is the correct pronunciation and there promises of be plenty of K signs when he’s on the mound.
It went right down to the 30 day time limit, but we always knew it would do. That’s the nature of bargaining. In a couple of weeks’ time the January football transfer window will open and no doubt the same old saga will play out as it does every year. A few deals will go through here and there, but seventy-five per cent will be rushed through in the last couple of days with teams frantically faxing the paperwork off to the FA and leaving every nervously waiting fan pondering; “why didn’t they sort this out a week ago?” (particularly when another club has come along at the last minute and stolen the player your team had been focusing on, leaving you with nothing – (c) the bitter experience of a Norwich fan!).
Deadlines create pressure and pressure forces people to make decisions. On this occasion Matsuzaka’s agent, Scott Boras, couldn’t use the normal trick of playing one team off another because there were no other teams involved. He could have said “don’t sign him now and the Yankees will get him next year” but as Matsuzaka would still be subject to the “posting” process next year (he doesn’t become a free agent until the end of 2008) there was no guarantee of that. The team and the agent/player are always at opposite ends of the deal spectrum, both trying to bargain their way to the best deal for themselves. In this case the opposite ends were more polarized than usual. While Boras had a valid reason to conclude that the posting fee shouldn’t effect Matsuzaka’s contract, the Red Sox had no option but to take it into consideration. It’s something football teams know only too well. There’s no point in submitting a £15 million bid if you then won’t be able to afford the £40,000+ per week contract the player will demand. You have to take into account the full cost of the deal. Any way you slice it, the Red Sox have put at least $100 million on the table and that’s putting a lot of faith in a guy who has never pitched in the Majors before.
Like most people, I always thought that an agreement would be reached. Matsuzaka essentially had two options, agree to the Red Sox deal or go back to Japan for at least another year. While Boras may have tried to play that bargaining card, I don’t think the Red Sox would have been too scared by it. Matsuzaka is clearly desperate to play in America and a year is a long time to further put off your dream when you have a great opportunity in your hands. I’m sure he wanted a good financial package and he would be selling himself short if he didn’t, but I don’t think chasing the biggest pay-day was on his mind. Arriving back to an adoring nation with his hopes dashed would have been hard to take. The deal guarantees him $52 million and could rise to $60 million depending on performance. That’s not to be sneezed at. Matsuzaka will be 32 when his deal runs out so if he’s successful and stays healthy he could always ink another lucrative contract. He looked happy enough at the press conference anyway!
Of course, this is only the very start of the journey. Sadly there will be plenty of people, not least bitter ex-players spouting rubbish on TV/radio shows, who will be waiting for him to fail. Every mistake will be jumped on and Boston will need to support their new star. The scouting reports and the stats all suggest he has genuine “Ace” potential, but it’s a big ask to expect him to move to a new country, new language, new culture, new environment, new league etc and immediately bring his “A” game. He will need a bit of time to settle, not that some people will allow him this.
As a baseball fan I’m delighted that Matsuzaka will be pitching in the Majors next season. The hitters often get their names in lights, but most years it is a pitcher or two who really captures the imagination. In 2005 we had Felix Hernandez (sadly not so much in 2006) and last year we had Francisco Liriano (even more sadly, not at all in 2007) with honourable mentions to Cole Hamels and Jered Weaver to name but two. These are new guys who, despite your allegiance, you go out of your way to catch their starts. I’m far from the only person who will be doing this for Matsuzaka in 2007.
The financial sums involved in this deal have raised lots of questions about the “posting” process. It’s certainly unconventional and does not favour either the U.S. team or the player. What system could be used in its place though? Many have been quick to note that it is the Japanese team who benefits the most, but why shouldn’t that be the case?
Until a player becomes a free agent, they have no legal right to walk out on their club to join another as they have made a commitment by signing their contract. A player only gets posted by a Japanese team if the player can convince them to do so. No team is going to give up their best player without receiving adequate compensation, so the system has to be attractive to the “selling” club. There also appears to be little choice other than to make the compensation financial. As in most countries, American sports began in a somewhat insular way and their structure has developed to reflect what suits them best. While players from other countries can join the league via the draft or free agency, most player movement is in the form of trades with players going in opposite directions. That’s fine in a sport which works within national boundaries but is untenable when you want to do a deal between clubs in different countries.
I struggle enough with the idea that a team can wake up a player one morning and tell him to pack his bags for another city because he’s been traded. It’s an accepted part of American sports and the players just get on with it. Still, imagine being told you had just been traded to another country! That’s clearly a situation that is not going to happen so trades are out of the question. Major League teams obviously can’t trade draft picks to Japanese teams either. So all that is left is cold hard cash and if the Japanese club is putting itself out to let a team take their best player, they have every right to expect to receive a substantial return. The blind bidding process has certainly worked in the Seibu Lions’ favour this time around, which is probably a good indication that MLB will be looking to change it.