For a 19-year-old pitcher who has never thrown an inning as either a professional, nor a Division I college athlete, Carter Stewart has made some waves in the baseball community over the past year. He was initially drafted out of high school with the eighth overall pick in the 2018 amateur draft by the Atlanta Braves. However, Stewart declined to sign and instead pitched for Eastern Florida State College this spring to maintain his eligibility.
The reason for passing on the Braves was pretty simple. Citing concerns over Stewart’s right wrist after his medicals were completed, the Braves lowballed Stewart on his draft bonus offer. As reported by Mark Bowman of MLB.com last July, Stewart sought a bonus of $4.5 million, which was slightly under his eighth-round slot value, while the Braves reportedly offered something close to $2 million. Stewart declined the offer and elected to try the junior college route instead, hoping to improve his stock in time for the 2019 draft. However, with the draft only weeks away, he is projected as a second rounder, bound to get less money than the Braves’ offer in 2018.
On Wednesday, those plans took a sharp turn as reports surfaced that Stewart had agreed on a free agent contract with the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks of Japan’s Pacific League for $7 million over six years, plus incentives. The 6’6 righthander, who already packs a fastball topping out in the high-90s and a curveball with an elite spin rate (over 3000 rpm), is looking to loop around MLB’s prospect pipeline. It’s going to be very interesting to watch it play out.
Jeff Passan of ESPN had the story first, with the news largely taking the industry by surprise. Stewart is represented by superagent Scott Boras, who has long sought ways to find a bit of leverage against MLB’s caps and controls. If heading to Japan as a free agent becomes a popular alternative, Boras and his clients will finally have a little clout back in their court as they negotiate with major league franchises. Stewart is a bit of a trial balloon here, but there are plenty of reasons why this could be a great decision for him.
Reaction has been mixed. On the one hand, the move gives Stewart more money up front, which could prove especially wise considering the injury risk to pitchers. Either way he’s making substantially more than he’d get as a draft bonus. Many good pitching prospects never even get to leverage their market value, or even make major league minimum before their career is cut short. The deal could also allow Stewart to become a free agent at 25, potentially cashing in much younger than he would via the major league route. Financially it makes quite a bit of sense.
The risks of the decision are where the debate centers. Pitching in Japan is a different beast in some ways. The four-man rotation, different training philosophies, and a different style of game might present some challenges for Stewart. It’s possible that it will be harder to impress major league teams with his numbers, but you can bet people will be closely tracking his progress. If he’s injured, people are going to steer blame toward Boras. If he’s sitting 95 mph with a monster curve and good durability and control 5-6 years from now, teams are going to be knocking down his door, Pacific League numbers or no.
This brings us to our Question of the Day.
Is Carter Stewart making a wise move, or is he a useful tool for Scott Boras?
My answer: I actually think this is rather brilliant. Certainly American players haven’t gone this route to date, so it’s hard to say if a major trend is coming. Probably not too many American players would be interested unless the rewards were irresistible. However, issues with the way major league teams manipulate prospects to minimize their earning potential and maximize their value to the franchise have been front and center over the past few seasons. By signing with Fukuoka, Stewart sets a fixed term for himself to reach free agency, and will be compensated substantially more money in the process. Major league baseball is going to have to take notice.
Japanese clubs are limited in how many foreign born players they can carry, so they’re going to be selective, and most players probably won’t be interested to begin with. Stewart is a combination of raw talent and risk that major league teams can’t value the way the Hawks can, because of their own self-interested bonus pool caps. But that might be where major league baseball finds itself with a bit of a wakeup call. For now , Stewart is the only hint that Japanese teams have any real interest in competing against major league teams for the top amateur talent.
Maybe things won’t work out for Stewart in the long run. That’s the nature of baseball. But he seems to have done well for himself in the deal, and in the process pried a crack in MLB’s defenses against a freer market for amateur players. Maybe this starts a little trend, but probably it doesn’t. Either way, living in Japan at age 19 and playing pro baseball for $7 million sounds awesome. I hope he does well.