Carter Stewart's Decision Unlikely To Start A Trend
Righthander Carter Stewart is taking a gamble that could have a significant financial payoff.
But conversations with multiple people inside the game finds that while everyone understands the decision Stewart is making, most do not believe Stewart’s decision to sign a contract with the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks will start a trend.
ESPN’s Jeff Passan reported that Stewart’s deal is for six years and $7 million. Financially, he is extremely likely to do better over the next six years than he would be going through the draft.
1. Carter Stewart's next 6 years an approximation.— JJ Cooper (@jjcoop36) May 22, 2019
Japan: 6 year, $7 million.
Stays in US. Optimistically let's say he's an early 2nd round pick. $2 million bonus.
2019: $2 million+$3,500 in salary.
2020: Let's say LoA. $6,500 in salary.
2021: HiA/AA. $8,100 in salary. (Cont.)
2. 2022: AA/AAA: $10,000 in salary— JJ Cooper (@jjcoop36) May 22, 2019
2023: MLB: $575K
2024: MLB: $600K
Next 6 years in Japan: $7 million, returns as MLB free agent.
Next 6 years in U.S.: Earns $3.2-$3.5 million. Will likely be arb eligible (under current CBA system) in 2025.
But where Stewart’s career goes from there is where it becomes more difficult, and why it will be hard to see many players follow in his footsteps.
There are U.S. players who travel to Japan to play every year. Some become stars, while other players with similar talent struggle and quickly come back to the States. Often they find the cultural adjustment is simply too much.
As a 19-year-old, Stewart will be much younger than the typical U.S. import to the Nippon Professional Baseball league. The traditional U.S. import is a player in his late 20s or early 30s with plenty of Triple-A experience.
“It is hard," said Seth Frankoff, a righthander who pitched in the majors with the Cubs before going to pitch in the Korea Baseball Organization. "The game is different. The coaching is different. His story is going to be even more different because he hasn’t played professional baseball and hasn’t developed set routines for himself, which to me is one of the most important things foreigners have to maintain when going overseas."
And the way the MLB international rules are constructed, Stewart will have to play well to have the decision pay off when he comes back to the States. Players who have six years of experience in a top-level foreign league and are 25 years old or older are not subject to the international bonus limits. Those limits are what kept Shohei Ohtani from receiving a contract commensurate with his talent when he came to the U.S. in 2017—he was not yet 25 years old.
The trickier requirement for Stewart to meet will be the six years of top-level international experience. His contract is set for six years. Stewart will have to play well and advance quickly. As a 19-year-old coming off one season of junior college baseball, he's expected to need time in the Japanese minor leagues to develop and adjust. Time spent in the Japanese minor leagues does not count towards that requirement.
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Japanese teams are also limited to only four U.S. imports on the active NPB roster. So while Stewart will be given plenty of time to develop, there are no guarantees that he will be kept on the active NPB roster if he struggles.
If Stewart stars in Japan, there could be a very significant payoff. If he came back to the States at age 25 or 26 with a track record of success and stuff, he could be one of the best free agents on the market in 2026 or 2027, and he would be young enough to land a longer-term contract than most pitchers who hit free agency.
There is another approach Stewart could take, which is worth examining just to explore all possible avenues. While MLB rules only exempt "foreign professionals" who are at least 25 and have six or more years of top-level pro experience, the process does not preclude Stewart from returning before that point.
In the offseason before the 2018 season, the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters posted Ohtani to make him available for MLB teams even though he was just 23 years old. While the move limited Ohtani's signing bonus and forced him to sign a minor league contract, it did bring back significant money ($20 million) for the Fighters, while also clearing Ohtani's path to the majors.
If Stewart did pitch extremely well for Fukuoka, it's possible that he could be posted back to the U.S. a few years into his Hawks' contract. While he would either be subject to the MLB draft or international bonus limits, a strong performance in Japan could turn him into a top draft/international prospect.
Playing in the NPB is a tougher test than playing in the minor leagues, so teams could look at Stewart as an available player who could immediately step in and contribute at the major league level, something that is almost never true in the draft or internationally. If he turned himself into a top-five draft prospect (or a top international prospect), he could land a $4 million or larger signing bonus. All of this is subject to Stewart being extremely good in Japan.
MLB has changed the release fees since Ohtani's posting. Fukuoka would receive 20 percent of whatever bonus Stewart received as its release fee, which means the team would receive back part of the money they invested to sign Stewart, but it would fall far short of the $20 million the Fighters received for Ohtani. But if he was posted in a few years, Stewart could earn significant money for playing in Japan, receive a larger bonus when he returns to the States and avoid the slog of playing in the low minors at a very low salary.
All of this will be determined over the next several years. Stewart's paths from East Florida State JC to NPB or MLB success will be a long and difficult one, but he has a chance to be a trailblazer.
“I think the biggest thing is he has to go in with the mindset that it’s going to be different than MLB, MiLB, and and stay positive about it," Frankhoff said. "There are days where you question whether you made the right decision leaving baseball in the States to play in Asia, but when you see the guaranteed money and the opportunities it creates you understand it’s worth it."