If there was a lesson to be taken from Kyler Murray’s choice between an MLB and NFL career on the baseball side, it was that MLB doesn’t have much to offer its young talent in the first few years of their professional careers.
Sure, top prospects receive millions in bonuses when they sign with teams after the draft, but after that, they can expect years of not making a living wage in the minors, then at least two years of making the MLB minimum, if they make it to the majors at all. It’s widely regarded as a miserable grind, but it’s also the only way dreams of playing in the big leagues are realized for American players.
Murray’s decision to enter the NFL draft would have ended up making financial sense even if he fell to the middle of the first round. Not only would he have received more money up front than the Oakland Athletics’ reported additional compensation, he would have been more likely to reach lucrative free agency sooner. That should have prompted questions for MLB.
Thanks to a 19-year-old right-hander out of Florida named Carter Stewart, those questions are back in full force.
Carter Stewart picks Japan over the minor leagues
Picked eighth overall by the Atlanta Braves in the 2018 MLB draft, Stewart was on track for the standard minors path until a wrist injury reportedly caused the Braves to lower their bonus offer to well below his draft slot. Stewart rejected the offer and enrolled in Eastern Florida State College.
Draft picks enrolling in a junior college or post-grad programs like the IMG Academy typically means they’ll re-enter the draft the next year. This year, Stewart chose ... a different path.
Right-hander Carter Stewart, the No. 8 pick in last year's draft who did not sign with the Atlanta Braves, is in agreement with the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks on a six-year deal worth more than $7 million, sources tell ESPN. Stewart, 19, will start in the minor leagues in Japan.
— Jeff Passan (@JeffPassan) May 22, 2019
Yup, rather than re-enter the draft, where Baseball America had him as the No. 39 prospect (equivalent pick bonus: $1,906,800), Stewart will fly halfway across the world and likely spend the next six years of his life playing baseball for Nippon Professional Baseball’s Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks.
Per ESPN, Stewart’s Japanese deal also includes escalators that could improve the value of his deal. Stewart can also be posted by the Hawks at the end of his deal, free to sign a free agent deal with any MLB team.
Why would an MLB prospect go to Japan?
It’s a bizarre decision, until you look at the reasons.
As Baseball America’s JJ Cooper breaks it down, Stewart is now on track to make double in Japan what he would have on a standard minor league path.
Rather than spending at least three years of his life traveling to games via bus while making less than $20,000 per year, Stewart will play for a Hawks team that has won four of the past five Japan Series championships.
And, if he’s successful in Japan for six years, Stewart can return to America at 25 years old with no international free-agent restrictions, barring a large change to the collective-bargaining agreement.
So basically, Stewart just doubled the floor of his earnings potential, opened a path to MLB free agency faster than anything possible stateside and will now play for an organization with more championships in the last five years than the Golden State Warriors (for now).
Really, the better question is why wouldn’t more MLB draft prospects do this? And what could MLB do to stop them?
One answer to the latter question could be some hardball restriction to prevent players from going overseas, but it might be more rewarding from the sport in general to stop lobbying to exempt minor league players from minimum wage laws and actually start allowing top young players to receive significant money earlier in their careers.
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