Yakult Swallows Sign Logan Ondrusek
The Yakult Swallows signed former right-handed Cincinnati Reds reliever, Logan Ondrusek, to a $1.2 million deal for the 2015 season with a team option for 2016. The Reds non-tendered Ondrusek after a season in which he posted a 5.49 ERA but was still set to receive a substantial raise from 2014’s $1.35 million salary through arbitration had the Reds decided to tender him a 2015 contract.
It seems highly likely that Ondrusek had or would have received major league offers from other MLB teams, given his past major league success and the fact that his strikeout and walks rates the last two seasons were the best of his career. However, it seems equally unlikely that any MLB team was or would have been willing to offer him as large a guarantee as the Swallows reportedly have.
This is the kind of signing we should see more often from NPB teams, but which are still fairly rare. The Swallows intend to give Ondrusek every opportunity to be their closer next year, something he was unlikely ever to be in MLB.
NPB teams highly value closers and pay veteran elite stoppers as highly as other elite veteran pitchers and position players. This means that relievers like Ondrusek should be able to get better deals from NPB teams than MLB teams because they have more value as closers in Japan than as middle relievers in the U.S. The same goes for a lot of other MLB players who are good enough to hold major league roster spots but aren’t good enough to be every day players, but would likely be big stars in NPB.
However, NPB teams, and particularly small-revenue teams like the Swallows, are usually very reluctant to sign players from the Americas for this much before they’ve played at all in NPB, mainly because it’s still pretty hit-or-miss which former MLB-system players will end up succeeding in NPB and which ones won’t. Foreign players are rarely given more than one season to adjust to life in Japan and NPB’s version of baseball, and many just can’t do it fast enough to stick around.
However, the last few years, the Swallows have been more aggressive in terms of the contracts they are willing to give foreign players from the Americas, because they need to be in order to compete with the better funded NPB teams.
Also, players like Ondrusek will usually agree to play for less money than what an NPB team might offer in order to stay in MLB, which is one of the major reasons why it’s mostly 4-A players who try to make a go of it in NPB — they usually aren’t giving up a hard-won major league roster spot to go to Japan.
Ondrusek will be 30 in 2015, and he may have concluded that he’s at the point in his career and of a talent level where it makes more sense to take the biggest contract offer he can get right now.
There are quite a few MLB right-handed middle relievers of roughly Ondrusek’s ability who are in this position every off-season. No one wants to give them arbitration money, so every off-season they’re looking for a job with a new team. If they’re lucky, they get a major league deal for about $1 million. If they’re not lucky, they sign a minor league deal that pays them close to $1 million for time spent in MLB, but less than $150,000 for time spent in the minor leagues.
One big year can mean a big pay raise, but the mostly likely outcome for these guys, based on their past performance, is to have the same kind of year that got them trapped in the rut of looking for a new team every year.