Sports

Ready to Shine in the United States, a Star Waits in Japan

Seiya Suzuki is the only player in Nippon Professional Baseball history to homer the first time he stepped to the plate in five consecutive games.

If Suzuki, an outfielder for the Hiroshima Toyo Carp, signs with a Major League Baseball team this off-season, he could make his mark in another unusual way: as the only player from Japan to be allowed more than 30 calendar days to consummate a deal under the posting system, a mechanism by which N.P.B. players are dangled to M.L.B. teams ahead of their contractual right to jump freely.

Suzuki’s posting is the 34th since the system was created in 1998. It has resulted in 21 player transfers, including high-profile signings like Ichiro Suzuki with the Seattle Mariners in 2000 and Shohei Ohtani with the Los Angeles Angels in 2017.

Team owners in M.L.B. have enjoyed such a long run of labor peace with players that when the sides last experienced a collective bargaining impasse, in 1994, the posting system with Japan did not yet exist. In 1995, Hideo Nomo, who signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers, became the first player in 30 years to come over from Japan, and only by exploiting a loophole in the agreements between the leagues.

After some messiness surrounding Hideki Irabu’s acquisition by the Yankees in 1997, the posting system was devised as a way to inject order into such transactions. But as the current collective bargaining agreement, which was signed in 2016, is set to expire on Wednesday at midnight, Eastern time, Seiya Suzuki’s path to the United States could include a pothole if he doesn’t sign by then.

If the M.L.B. team owners lock the players out, as expected, the 30-day negotiating window for a posted player’s services will halt along with all other transactions. While some details will need to be finalized, the expectation is that Suzuki will be afforded the standard 30 negotiating days in total, with his clock pausing for a lockout and resuming upon a settlement. Since he was posted on Nov. 22, he would have 20 days remaining upon a resolution.

Two of Suzuki’s hits in the Olympics came off Nick Martinez, who also faced him in Japan. “Japan had an all-star team,” Martinez said. “All eight hitters have major league potential, so to bat fourth in that lineup is all you need to know about his ability.”Credit…Yuichi Masuda/Getty Images

That may not seem like a big concern, but a protracted labor disruption could affect his decision. Spring training in Japan starts Feb. 1, roughly three weeks earlier than the current M.L.B. schedule. Beyond players with health issues, latecomers are almost unheard-of in Japan. If Suzuki has any thoughts of returning to the Carp, he would probably want to do that with the rest of the group on Feb. 1.

Since Suzuki is 27, his contract is not subject to international bonus pool money restrictions. He is free to negotiate the best deal he can, with the Carp receiving a release fee from the signing team based on the total value of Suzuki’s contract, a sliding scale that begins with 20 percent of the first $25 million guaranteed and increases thereafter.

Suzuki’s agent, Joel Wolfe, spoke with the news media in Japan on Monday and told reporters that between eight and 15 M.L.B. teams had expressed serious interest in Suzuki and that some remote meetings have occurred. Wolfe said the Suzukis do not feel pressured to make a decision ahead of a possible lockout and that he expects Suzuki will want to conduct on-site visits before making a final decision.

While Suzuki is a star outfielder at the professional level, he did not earn early fame the way some of the more prominent Japanese players — such as the former Yankees Hideki Matsui and Masahiro Tanaka — did by starring in the National High School Baseball Championship at Koshien. His teams never advanced to summer or spring editions of the showcase. Suzuki was, however, a member of the team that earned Japan its first Olympic gold medal in baseball at this summer’s Tokyo Games, a quest so important for the country that N.P.B. suspended its season for 26 games so the best professional players could represent the nation.

Suzuki had a disappointing tournament, batting .167, but all three of his hits came in his six at-bats against the United States in two games, including the gold medal contest. He batted fourth and played right field every inning of the tournament and hit his lone home run off Anthony Carter, a former Chicago White Sox draft choice.

Suzuki, second from left, has starred in Nippon Professional Baseball as well as with the Japanese national team. He was the most valuable player of the Premier12 baseball tournament, which was a qualifier for the Olympics.Credit…Toru Takahashi/Associated Press

Nick Martinez, who took the loss for the United States in the gold medal game despite yielding one run in six innings, surrendered two singles in three at-bats to Suzuki. A former Texas Rangers pitcher, Martinez, a right-hander, has become familiar with Suzuki after playing four seasons in Japan with the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters and the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks.

“Our preparation for him was to be a little more cautious,” Martinez said. “Japan had an all-star team. All eight hitters have major league potential, so to bat fourth in that lineup is all you need to know about his ability.”

Suzuki was drafted out of high school in the second round by the Carp in 2012, the same draft in which another high schooler, Ohtani, was taken in the first round by the Fighters. Suzuki pitched and played infield throughout high school, but other than three games at third base in 2014 and some occasional stints in left and center, he has primarily played right field for Hiroshima.

Suzuki, a five-time all-star, has 182 home runs in 902 N.P.B. games, including six straight seasons of 25 home runs or more, but his strength is making contact. His career batting average is .315, and he won batting titles in 2019 and 2021. He has hit .300 or better every year since 2016 and has won four gold gloves.

In addition to his hitting exploits, Suzuki has won four gold gloves in Japan.Credit…Yuichi Masuda/2021 Getty Images

After the Carp announced they would honor Suzuki’s request to be posted, he held a news conference in which he said he was inspired by Hiroki Kuroda, the longtime Hiroshima pitcher and former Yankee, who rejoined the Carp rotation for the final two seasons of his career in 2015.

Asked about when he decided he wanted to play in the United States, Suzuki said, “At birth.” Then he continued: “No, honestly, I would say when Kuroda San came back here. He would say to me, ‘Look at these players in the U.S. major leagues.’ While they were playing the same game of baseball, the level of their play was so much different. It had a tremendous impact on me. I didn’t grow up interested in the American game and I never really paid attention to it until he convinced me to. Once he did, it opened my eyes to the kind of talent over there and it inspired me to want to compete with them.”

He is now poised to get that chance, although it may take longer than usual.

Brad Lefton is a bilingual journalist based in St. Louis. He has covered baseball in Japan and the United States for more than 20 years.

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