Players Seek Riches, Opportunity In Japan And Korea
As fall turned into winter and the offseason dragged on, Seth Frankoff had a decision to make.
The 29-year-old righthander made his major league debut last season and was securely on the Mariners’ 40-man roster. However, an opportunity arose after the season to play for the Doosan Bears in the Korea Baseball Organization, a move that would guarantee greater financial security for his family, which now included a newborn daughter. The thought of moving his family halfway across the world to South Korea was daunting, as was giving up the 40-man roster spot he had worked so hard to earn.
After a month of long nights thinking about it, countless conversations with his family and hours spent researching and talking to players who previously made the move, Frankoff came to his decision: He asked the Mariners for his release so he could play in the KBO.
“It was a tough decision because I was on the 40-man roster with the Mariners and being on that roster, some of that, getting to the big leagues, is that paper,” Frankoff said. “It just felt like the right decision in that I was going over to Korea for guaranteed money. Here in the United States, as much as my heart is playing in the big leagues, it was one of those things where I didn’t know how much time I’ll have in the big leagues next year.
"It was an unknown how much time I was going to spend in the big leagues, so the guarantee was too good to pass up.”
Every year, a handful of major leaguers with 40-man roster spots make the same decision. Frankoff will be joined in the KBO in 2018 by former Rangers outfielder Jared Hoying, who signed with the Hanwha Eagles in the offseason. Brewers righthander Taylor Jungmann, a 2011 first-round pick, asked for his release so he could sign with a team in Nippon Professional Baseball, the Japanese major leagues.
Ross Ohlendorf, Joe Wieland, Stefen Romero and Chris Marrero led the exodus of players to Japan last year. Brent Morel, Dennis Sarfate, Josh Lindblom and Dustin Nippert are among the dozens of other ex-big leaguers who left for Asia at other points.
In all, nearly 100 ex-major or minor leaguers played in either NPB or the KBO last year. Above all else, financial security is the main reason they made the decision to go abroad.
“It’s hard to say it wasn’t strictly a business decision going over there for someone in my situation,” said Morel, who played parts of six seasons in the majors before signing with Orix in NPB before the 2016 season. “Being up and down (between the minors and majors) for probably the last two or three years I was in the big leagues . . . it was just a little bit more stability and financially it worked out for me to go.”
Minor leaguers on a 40-man roster for the first time received a minimum salary of $41,400 in 2016, the last year figures are available. (Non-40-man players make significantly less.) That works out to nearly $7,000 per month during the season, and players aren't paid in the offseason.
In Asia, players can make 20 times that.
Romero, a former Mariners outfielder, received $1.15 million on his first contract with Orix in NPB, and during the 2017 season signed a two-year, $5 million extension with a mutual option for a third year. Morel received $750,000 when he first signed with Orix. Hoying signed for $700,000 in the KBO this winter. Sarfate, a former Orioles reliever who first went to Japan in 2011 and blossomed into one of the country’s biggest stars, made $4.525 million in 2017.
“I was a 27th-round draft pick out of college as a senior. I signed for $1,000 and this year was the first year I made above $2,500 a month,” Frankoff said. “So it was one of those things where I had no money before, and this is money that will make my family secure financially.”
Spots in the KBO and NPB are limited and highly sought after. NPB teams are limited to four foreign players on their active roster. KBO teams can have no more than three.
Scouts from those leagues fan out across the U.S. during the regular season and generally seek a certain type: Players in their late 20s who have major league experience but are largely stuck in Triple-A.
In 2017, 58 of the 69 foreign players who played in Japan had major league experience. Of those, 47—or 81%—spent the majority of their previous season in Triple-A.
In many cases, the players who agree to go over to Asia had already considered it for years.
“This doesn’t begin once they sign,” said agent Paul Cobbe, whose agency Sosnick, Cobbe & Karon has sent roughly 30 players to NPB and the KBO. “I’m talking to guys who I think may be at the spot in their career where a year or two down the line they might be interested in going over to Asia.
"These are players in their mid- to late 20s. Maybe they get up to the big leagues, they’re coming up and down, they’re engaged, they get married, they’re having children. They realize, ‘Boy, the best I may do is making $20,000 a month’, versus going over the Asia and making $100,000 a month or $200,000 a month. You present it as a business opportunity where a guy can retire with actually seven figures in his account versus really having to scrape to go find a job.”
The increased salary is just the start of the benefits. Players also receive plush, fully furnished apartments when they arrive in Japan or South Korea paid for by their teams. Moving expenses are covered, an interpreter is provided and players have their family’s every need met. They often live in the nicest parts of town, with every amenity in walking distance.
“The teams are amazing,” said Sarfate, who was named Japan's Pacific League MVP in 2017. “They go above and beyond for their players, especially the foreign guys. It’s a unique experience that I wish that everyone who has been in Triple-A for a long time, never got a chance in the big leagues, maybe up and down, got to experience. But not everyone does. They are really picky on who they bring over.”
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KBO and NPB clubs have to be picky. In addition to having limited roster spots for foreign players, it is a significant investment to acquire them. KBO and NPB teams have to pay a buyout, generally ranging anywhere from $50,000 to $1 million, to MLB clubs in order for a player currently on a 40-man roster to be released to sign with them.
As such, the Asian teams’ investment in foreign players—the buyout, the players’ salaries, the cost of their apartment and other living expenses—is motivation enough to make players comfortable so they can perform on the field.
“Everyone there goes out of their way to help Americans,” Morel said. “Like even if you’re on the train or you're lost. I feel like there’s just really nice genuine people there who will help you, which I was really impressed with.”
While everything is taken care of off the field, it is on the field players find the luxury stops. The length of the season—players report for spring training at the end of January and can play until the conclusion of the championship series in November—is grueling. Arguing with umpires is strictly against the baseball culture. Most difficult, the language barrier makes communicating with coaches and teammates nearly impossible.
“If you’re in a slump or something, you can’t really express to the hitting coaches or the managers, just because of that language barrier, even with the translator,” Romero said. “Since they haven’t been to America and know the game in the States and how hitters do tee drills or just need something to tweak in the cage, that’s a little bit of a challenge. You've got to be your own coach in a way.”
“They don’t really work with you on anything,” Sarfate added. “They don’t mess with the foreigners . . . They leave you alone unless you’re struggling, and then you’re out.”
It can be abrupt, shockingly so, for how short a leash struggling players get before they are “out.” Former D-backs outfielder Kyle Jensen, for example, struck out nine times in 14 plate appearances with Softbank in NPB last year. He was demoted to their farm team for the rest of the season.
The pressure to perform, and perform quickly and without much help, is often compounded by homesickness. Even for those who received the financial security and playing time they dreamed of, being 5,000 miles from home for nine months of the year can take a toll.
“You kind of have to have the right personality to go over there,” Morel said. “It’s not like you can just take a two or three hour flight across the country and be with your family on your off day or anything like that. It has to be the right situation and the right mindset . . . People, if they struggle over there, find it a lot harder. If you’re struggling, it can be tough no matter where you are playing, but if you’re in a different country you can get pretty homesick.”
For those who battle through the tough times and find success on the field, the rewards can be great.
Sometimes success results in multi-million dollar contract extensions to remain abroad, as Sarfate and Romero received in Japan.
Sometimes it results in a second, more lucrative chance to play in majors. Eric Thames, a part-time outfielder his first run through the majors, signed a three-year, $16 million contract with the Brewers after three years starring in the KBO. This offseason the Cardinals signed righthander Miles Mikolas to a two-year, $15.5 million deal after three sterling years pitching in NPB.
“What’s made this really interesting, and you can thank guys like (Yu) Darvish and (Masahiro) Tanaka and certainly most recently (Shohei) Ohtani for this happening, is every club scouts over there now and scouts with purpose,” Cobbe said. “It’s not just, ‘Hey, we have a Pacific Rim scout and he’s going to make a trip over there.’ You have juice that’s going in there. You have GMs that have gone in there or scouting directors that go in and really bear down on not only Asian players, but foreign players that are there to come back.”
The chance to return to the majors is always in the back of the minds of the players who go abroad. However, American veterans of NPB and the KBO note newcomers have to be careful with that mindset.
“If you’re just going to try to go over there and make money and leave, guys aren’t going to accept you very well,” Sarfate said. “They don’t want a guy who’s just going to come over for one year and then leaving. It took my team in Hiroshima until about August my first year to get them to even invite me out to a dinner because they don’t want to be friends with somebody who is only going to be there one year. Adjust to the culture first and don’t worry about the money.”
One of the biggest cultural adjustments, and the one that catches many American players off guard, is the energy level of the stadiums. Games are filled to the brim with rollicking fans singing and standing from start to finish. What would be a sleepy regular season game in the U.S. is often a giant party in Japan or Korea. In some ways, that is what often sells players on more than just the finances when they are abroad.
“The stadiums are sold out, the fans are nonstop, they’re amazing,” Sarfate said. “It’s like a WWE match and World Series Game 7 mixed together. There’s no other way to explain it. The atmospheres are amazing.”
“It’s more of like a college football atmosphere,” added Morel. “Everyone has their own chants, everyone is standing and yelling the whole time. Especially compared to where playing here, especially the minor leagues in different cities, you might not fill the park up. Just the passion and love for the game stands out. It’s the No. 1 sport over there.”
The excitement extends beyond the final out. In Japan, at the conclusion of every game, a stage is brought onto the field and the player of the game is put on the stage for a “hero interview.”
“They bring out the stage and the have the translator there and you have 10-20 cameras,” Romero said. “Every home game, if you’re the ‘hero’, you get interviewed and they do a chant to the crowd. The crowd stays behind, not the entire stadium, but probably 10,000 or so stay just to hear you talk pretty much. They just want to hear you say something in Japanese. They go wild if you do. It’s pretty awesome.”
The money and unique experiences available to American players in Japan and South Korea are enticing. There are challenges, culturally and on the field, but with minor league salaries continuing to stagnate, it’s become an increasingly attractive option for players stuck in Triple-A limbo.
That’s why Frankoff and others made the move abroad this year, and why many others will make the same move in the future.
“I’ve talked to a bunch of guys who played over there and everybody has had pretty much the same positive experience,” Frankoff said. “Hopefully, I think if I pitch well I’ll have options and that’s the goal, really. Just go over there and pitch well and be the best pitcher for the Doosan Bears I can be this year and however the chips fall after this year, they fall.
"My heart is still in pitching here in the big leagues in the United States. That’s still the goal. But for this year, I’m going to be the best pitcher I can be in the KBO.”