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"It is silly,'' said one major league executive. "It is stupid."
The posting process originated from the Padres' controversial signing of pitcher Hideki Irabu in 1997. The Padres entered into a working agreement with Irabu's team in Japan, the Chiba Lotte Marines, guaranteeing exclusive rights to him, which angered a number of major league teams that wanted to bid for him. The Padres traded Irabu to the Yankees three months later, but from Irabu's signing, the posting process was born. Now teams make one secretive bid. The team with the highest bid is given 30 days to sign the player. If the team fails to do so, the player goes back to his Japanese club, and the posting fee is retrieved.
The posting process was adopted in part because the small-market teams didn't feel they had a chance to compete in open bidding against the big-market clubs. But what we've learned from the Matsuzaka case is that the blind bidding by teams can produce an even more outrageous offer. When the Mariners posted $13.1 million for Ichiro Suzuki in 2000, they were afraid that they had overpaid for him, but they knew they had to offer at least $10 million to have a shot at getting him. As it turned out, Ichiro has earned his money.
Matsuzaka is a decorated, highly skilled, 26-year-old starting pitcher in a market short on free agent starting pitching. When the posting process started, it was assumed that Matsuzaka would get twice what Ichiro got, and perhaps as much as $30 million. Instead, the posting bid by the Red Sox was a stunning $51.1 million, roughly $11 million more than the next highest bid. No small market team in the major leagues could consider paying $51.1 million to talk to a player. And no small-market team that could possibly add another $52 million in salary for six years -- as Boston did -- to drive the total cost to $103.1 million (plus incentives that could raise the value of the contract as high as $110 million).
"Matsuzaka's contract is the equivalent of A-Rod and [Rangers owner] Tom Hicks,'' one GM said.
It's possible that the posting fee for Matsuzaka raised the posting price for Kei Igawa, the left-handed pitcher the Yankees paid $26 million for the right to negotiate. The difference is, there was less variance in the bids for Igawa given that the Mariners' bid $21 million and the Mets' was $19 million. Still, there are a number of GM's who say there are better ways than the posting process to bid for young Japanese players who have not yet reached free agency, which takes eight years in Japan. Some baseball executives say a traditional free agent structure where the highest bidder wins is better than blind bidding.
Japanese teams likely won't want to change the posting rules because, in the end, the biggest winner in the Matsuzaka saga is his former team, the Seibu Lions, who got $51.1 million just for owning his rights. There was speculation that the Red Sox were hoping to get a rebate from the Lions on that $51.1 million, but a Major League Baseball official was adamant that there were no rebates in the posting process: $51.1 million is $51.1 million. As for speculation that the Mariners received a rebate on Ichiro's $13.1 million posting fee, a source close to those negotiations confirmed there was no rebate.
To further complicate the matter, there is great disagreement as to whether the $51.1 posting fee should be added to a team's payroll for luxury tax purposes because it was, after all, part of the purchase price for the player. But, agent Scott Boras, who represents Matsuzaka, said that Matsuzaka's salary is not $17 million a year ($103.1 million divided by six years), but it's actually just under $9 million ($52 million for six years). Boras contends (and the Red Sox agree) that only salary should be applied to team payroll.
This case was made more complex by the presence of Boras, who is brilliant, fearless and willing to challenge any system if it restricts a player from maximum earning potential. But Boras couldn't be at his relentless best in this negotiation because he didn't have his usual leverage. If Matsuzaka hadn't signed with the Red Sox, his only option was to go back to the Lions, who held his rights through the 2008 season, which he had no interest in doing, and the Lions didn't want him back because they were financially troubled and needed the $51.1 posting fee.
There was a fear that Boras might try to turn Matsuzaka into the Japanese version of Curt Flood, who challenged baseball's reserve clause, and helped bring about free agency.
Boras might do that someday with another Japanese player, but it was probably too late, and would have been too costly, to attempt such a major change during the course of these negotiations. And ultimately, it all worked out. The Red Sox got a guy who, veteran baseball men insist, has a chance to be the ace of their rotation immediately. Matsuzaka got what he wanted, a chance to play in the major leagues. And the Lions got their $51.1 million.
Maybe this was the most obvious game of chicken ever. Maybe it was clear from the start that the Red Sox had every intention of signing Matsuzaka, and he had every intention of signing even if it meant getting less money per season than Gil Meche, Ted Lilly or Vicente Padilla. But maybe the next posting process won't end up with all winners. Maybe a team will spend 30 days trying to sign a player, fail to do so, and perhaps lose 30 days of business as, in a different scenario, the Astros did in their unexpected loss of Andy Pettitte.
It seems as if these postings aren't going to get any easier, but surely there are going to be more in the coming years. Japanese players are good. Bobby Valentine, who manages in Japan, said three years ago that every starting position player in Japan could make a major league team. And the pitching there is getting better and better, as was proven again this past March when Japan, led by Matsuzaka, won the 2006 World Baseball Classic.
A change in the posting system will be, like the Matsuzaka negotiation, difficult to complete. It likely would require a vote of major league general managers, a vote from baseball's ownership committee and surely a vote from the commissioner's office in Japan.
"They'll change it,'' one club official said. "No doubt. After this, they have to.''
Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.