Amidst Lockout Uncertainty, Players Opt To Sign In Japan and Korea

Image credit: Matt Andriese (Getty Images)

Matt Andriese sat in his Texas home last fall, unsure of what would come next.

The 32-year-old righthander has been a consistent presence on major league pitching staffs for the bulk of his seven-year career. He had his worst season in 2021, but finished the year strong after the Mariners picked him up in August.

Under normal circumstances, Andriese and his agent would have been in discussions with teams about a contract for next season. Whether it was a major league deal or a minor league deal with an invitation to spring training, Andriese could have been reasonably assured of receiving some kind of offer.

These, however, were not normal circumstances.

With the lockout looming, teams rushed to sign top-tier free agents after the World Series but largely eschewed lower-tier options like Andriese. Once the lockout went into effect Dec. 2, he and hundreds of other free agents entered limbo—unsigned, uncertain when they would be able to talk to teams again and unsure when big league spring training or the major league season would start.

With two young children and a third on the way, Andriese couldn’t afford to wait to find out. On Dec. 16, he agreed to sign with the Yomiuri Giants of the Nippon Professional Baseball League in Japan.

“This offseason it was, we kind of called around different teams, trying to see if we could strike a deal early,” Andriese said. “But a lot of teams were hesitant to commit to anything too soon with all the uncertainty of the CBA and all that.

“I thought they’d get something done sooner or later. Now that that’s still going on, it seems like I made a pretty good decision.”

Players looking for second chances or increased financial security have long flocked to Asia, but the lockout has changed the calculation for those who might have otherwise stayed in the U.S. Typically, players who are stuck in Triple-A or are constantly being shuttled back and forth between the majors and minors make up most of the emigres to Japan and Korea each year.

With the lockout in effect, a higher tier of players made the move this offseason. More and more, steady big leaguers coming off of poor seasons opted to go abroad.

Outfielder Gregory Polanco and righthander Matt Shoemaker, both of whom spent most of last season in the majors, joined Andriese in signing with the Giants. Shortstop Freddy Galvis, righthander Tyler Chatwood and righthander John Gant signed with other Japanese clubs after spending the better part of last year in the major leagues. Righthander Adam Plutko led the contingent of big leaguers signing with Korean teams. 

All struggled last season and may have had a difficult time receiving major league deals in free agency regardless. Still, such players generally sign minor league deals with the hope of earning a 40-man roster spot in spring training or being an early-season callup.

Without knowing what MLB’s financial structure would look like on the other side of negotiations or when the major league season would start, they instead took the guaranteed deals being offered abroad.

“Over the years I played with a lot of guys on my teams and had a lot of buddies of mine that have gone over to Japan and had nothing but good things to say,” said righthander Burch Smith, who made 31 appearances for the Athletics last season and signed with NPB’s Seibu Lions in January. “So all that and the combination of this lockout was a bit of a motivating factor I would say. With the uncertainty here, it was kind of a perfect storm and a great time to take this opportunity.”

Roster spots for foreigners in Japan and Korea are limited. NPB, Japan’s major leagues, limits clubs to four foreign players per team. The Korea Baseball Organization, Korea’s major league, limits teams to three.

For the players who fill those spots, opportunities are abound. Some players, such as former Orioles reliever Dennis Sarfate, remain in Asia and go on to successful, lucrative careers abroad. Others, such as Cardinals righthander Miles Mikolas and Mariners righthander Chris Flexen, flourish in foreign leagues and receive guaranteed multi-year deals to return to the majors.

Such factors played a role in the players’ decisions to go abroad independent of the lockout. Both Andriese and Smith were offered the chance to pitch in Japan as starters, their desired roles, after primarily pitching in relief in the majors in recent seasons. Andriese received a reported $2.1 million guaranteed, more than he ever made in a major league season. Smith acknowledged he’s long wanted to experience playing a season in Japan.

Still, the lockout essentially clinched it.

“When Japan came calling, I was kind of forced into making a decision at such an early stage of the offseason,” Andriese said. “During that time it was more of like, I guess this is kind of the direction I have to go because, I mean, I still wouldn’t even be talking to teams now in terms of getting a job for next year.”

The effects of the coronavirus pandemic have altered the process for players to go abroad. Typically, signees arrive in Japan in mid-January and begin spring training in February.

However, due to the Omicron surge, foreign nationals were effectively barred from entering Japan until March 1, leaving players to work out stateside. They became eligible to apply for visas on Tuesday.

The Giants organized a mini-camp in Tucson, Ariz. for Andriese, Polanco and former Twins minor league outfielder Adam Brett Walker, their signees, in mid-February. Smith worked out at a facility in Tampa with about 20-30 other major leaguers who are riding out the lockout.

All still have to apply for their visas. When they will be approved is anyone’s guess.

“I don’t really have a date yet,” Smith said. “There are still a lot of other steps you have to take. If I had to guess, maybe 7-10 days, but that’s really just a guess.”

Even with that, the security of knowing when the season will start, and when they will receive their first paycheck, made going abroad even more appealing than usual for players on the lower end of the free agent market. As such, established major leaguers who usually would have stayed home made up a larger share of NPB and KBO signees this offseason than usual.

With negotiations still ongoing and the start dates for spring training and the regular season still unsettled, it was a decision that, for many, was prudent.  

“The whole CBA and stuff like that really changed the outlook on free agency for the middle-of-the-pack type guys or the guys who were smaller contracts,” Andriese said. “It was either get a guaranteed deal or, if I’m not able to strike a guaranteed deal here, probably be in for way less money than what I got.

“The possibility of being in the minor leagues making $25,000 on a minor league contract with three kids, that would be tough on family.”

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