ESPN’s Jeff Passan was first with the full details about Eastern Florida State College RHP Carter Stewart’s (our 56th-ranked prospect for next month’s 2019 draft) shocking signing with the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks of Japan’s Pacific League. Stewart will receive $7 million over the next six years, enabling him to qualify for MLB free agency at age 25 (through the new tiered posting process) when the deal ends, provided he plays in the Pacific League in parts of all six years.
There are a number of impactful outcomes from this deal, so I’ll take them one at a time:
1. This is surely more money than Stewart could’ve gotten through the draft and MLB path over the next six years.
Passan and J.J. Cooper took a stab at projecting Stewart’s earnings over the next six seasons in America, and I’ve come to the same conclusion. Charitably projecting roughly $2 million in a draft bonus, something like $20,000 to $30,000 in total minor league salaries (depending on how quickly he gets to the big leagues), and something between $750,000 and $1.8 million in the big leagues (again, depending on when he gets there and if he stays). The rosiest versions of those numbers doesn’t even get Stewart to $4 million, which is still about $1 million less than the slot value ($4.98 million) at the pick where he didn’t sign with the Braves last year, roughly what he could’ve expected without the dispute over his wrist.
2. This sets up an alternative path for draft prospects to gain negotiating leverage, likely starting with next month’s draft.
Going overseas for six years and then coming back to a free agent payday is only a move that an elite prospect that’s solely focused on baseball and somewhat culturally open-minded would approach, so this won’t be a negotiating tactic for the whole draft. For prep or first-year junior college prospects projected for the top two rounds, however, this could be a real bargaining tactic, even if it’s never fully explored by the player.
3. This, combined in smaller part with the Kyler Murray saga, will likely force MLB’s hand to raise the draft pools to keep pace with other leagues.
Given the unusual response MLB had to the Murray ordeal, it’s proven that it’s willing to step out from tradition and try to do what it takes to keep elite talents in the league. Ultimately, the No. 1 overall pick as a quarterback vs. a one-year college baseball player is a large monetary bridge to gap, but MLB doesn’t want to see elite talents going to other sports or leagues. This could mean that after a half dozen more players use this tactic and at least one more signs with a Japanese pro club, MLB could see a potential crisis and raise draft pools in some form before the next CBA, as both a way to keep talent and as an olive branch for what should be a fierce negotiation. We estimate the first overall pick, as a trade asset, is worth something like $50 million, and some could argue it’s worth close to $75 million some years. The draftees shouldn’t be paid so low that it’s worth almost $75 million in value for the chance to sign the player to something just below the $8.41 million slot value.
MLB saw substitution become an option for the first time in awhile this offseason when the Twins wanted to hire University of Arkansas pitching coach Wes Johnson and had to go well above the bar for first year MLB assistant coaches to do it. There still isn’t direct competition to use market forces to get minor league player salaries or general lower level staffer jobs northward.
4. This also sets up an competing league that will be a check on MLB’s rules about amateur pay and how quickly a player can reach free agency.
The biggest part of this is what was surely Scott Boras’ motivation to get this deal done with these parameters. If Stewart plays on the big league Fukuoka club for at least part of each of the six years, he’ll be 25 and have six years of pro experience at the end of the deal, so he can then be posted. Part of the contract goes to the Japanese club, but giving up roughly 20% of that first big deal in order to get there at least three years early is another precedent the MLB Players Union has to love to see. The hope is that this, like the draft bonus pools, will force MLB to make the domestic path to free agency shorter so players won’t leave in droves to find their payday.
5. Stewart is a big winner here, but it isn’t a slam dunk that he’ll excel immediately in Japan.
One of the first things texted to me by multiple sources after this deal is that the Japanese minor leagues are no walk in the park. The style of pitching, the work ethic required, the accommodations, and the approach of coaches are all things that are literally and figuratively foreign to American amateurs.
It’s somewhat common for top prospects to sign with a Japanese pro club with a non-contractual handshake deal about when they will be posted. I would imagine there’s an understanding that Stewart will get time in each of the six seasons of his deal and will be posted at the end of it. Shohei Ohtani was rumored to have a deal like this after he opted against signing with the Dodgers out of high school.
Stewart was elite (we pegged him as a 50 FV for the 2018 draft, ninth overall) but noted he faded a bit down the stretch and some wondered about his wrist injury. The Braves walked away from a deal over a dispute about the severity of that injury, and this spring, things played out closer to what the Braves argued than Stewart. Before the injury, Stewart was consistently 93-96, touching 98 mph with some life, and had a curveball that flashed 70 in every outing multiple times (and a 3000+ rpm spin rate) along with about an average changeup and command projection. Here’s some video of the pre-injury Stewart:
This spring, his stuff has varied a good bit. He’ll sit 92-96 and hit 97 mph at times to start outings, then settle 90-94 later and with less life. His curveball has flashed 70 a handful of times this season for some scouts, but it’s mostly a 55 or 60 pitch at best, with most projecting a 60 pitch long term. His frame has lost some athleticism and his command hasn’t been as sharp this spring either. A couple scouts noted that Stewart hasn’t stopped playing golf (he’s a scratch golfer) and some clubs think that will serve to further weaken his wrist going forward, though that isn’t conclusive. We spoke with a number of clubs about their feelings on Stewart before he signed and they all said there was an elevated or above-average amount of risk going forward, relative to other pitching prospects, in regard to his wrist.
We have Stewart at the top of the 40 FV range in the 2019 draft class, which also translates to where he’d rank on our minor league team lists. Our estimates have a high 40 FV, borderline 40+ FV pitcher for his controlled MLB seasons (normally six or seven years) as being worth something like $3 million, per Craig Edwards research.
6. After some recent missteps and the empowered analytical GM blowing a hole in his playbook, Boras makes another precedent-setting, splashy move.
The title of the top and/or most creative agent in the game was up for debate after Boras held it for quite some time. One of the most outspoken advocates for players has found a way to make them money when MLB appeared to have players boxed into a corner and the MLBPA couldn’t negotiate it’s way out of a wet paper bag in the last CBA. Other agents may help drive a truck through this crack in MLB’s economic gates, but Boras is the once that made the crack.
Kiley McDaniel has worked as an executive and scout, most recently for the Atlanta Braves, also for the New York Yankees, Baltimore Orioles and Pittsburgh Pirates. He's written for ESPN, Fox Sports and Baseball Prospectus. Follow him on twitter.