With the World Series long over, but with the off-season signing period not yet hot and heavy, there hasn’t been much I’ve really felt like writing about. I’ve reached a point in my blogging career where I feel like it’s only worth my writing about something if I have something truly meaningful to say that isn’t being contemporaneously beaten to death by all the hundreds or thousands of other baseball blogs out there.
As such, I write about a lot of obscure topics precisely because you’re not going to find dozens of other sites providing similar infotainment. It also frees me to write about darker corners of the baseball world that I find interesting, but not a lot of other people care much about.
For example, I am endlessly fascinated about the American players who play in Asian leagues. Every off-season I follow who the new crop of players moving their careers there and wondering about how Asian teams identify these prospects. Do Asian teams regularly contact specific players (or their agents) whom Asian teams have identified based on their own research, or do the players and their agents contact Asian teams advising of their interest in playing abroad. Is it some combination of the two? Do Asian teams contact the MLB players’ association and MLB organizations at the start of every off-season to get the players informed about the possibilities of playing in Asia?
My guess is that a lot of the border-line MLB players who are most likely to succeed in Japan’s NPB or South Korea’s KBO simply have no interest in playing in Asia unless they get an offer they can’t refuse. The dream of major league success dies hard for a lot of these guys. It must, or otherwise the caliber of American players going to Japan or South Korea would be higher than it actually is, since NPB and the KBO certainly pay better than a year mostly spent at AAA. Also, it’s a big adjustment to live and work in a foreign culture, which is exacerbated if the player has a family in the U.S. Do you bring the wife and kids to Japan or South Korea once the school year is over, or do you live apart for six months?
The players who make the leap usually have to reach a point where they are convinced that they aren’t going to get even a fair shot at becoming major league players, usually because they’ve aged out, but sometimes because they are guys who were low draft picks who have outperformed expectations but still haven’t necessarily been shown a whole lot of respect or as many opportunities as their on-field performance alone might merit.
Something that got me thinking about this today was the KC Royals’ decision to sign catcher Drew Butera to a two-year $3.8 million contract. Butera strikes me as a guy more lucky than good, a player who got a major league opportunity when a team (the Twins) was desperate for a catcher who could at least field the position and who then stuck around long enough that other teams began thinking of him as a major league player, even though his performances were generally poor.
Butera, at age 32 in 2016, had the first season of his major league career in which his offensive performance was not dreadful, and he was able to parlay it into a two-year deal, that, while modest by current MLB standards, is still not chump change. It is worth noting that while fangraphs rated the value of Butera’s 2016 performance at $5.3 million, the site still gives him a negative value for his major league career.
Butera is a good defensive catcher, but not nearly good enough to make up for his typically dreadful hitting. I strongly suspect his batting will regress toward his mean in 2017.
Anyway, the existence of long-term major leaguers like Butera who aren’t as good as a replacement level player, means that there are guys stuck in the minors who aren’t getting all the opportunities they deserve. I’m a little surprised that even more of these guys aren’t fighting among themselves to play for major league money in Asia, in large part because the idea of getting paid big money to play baseball and experience a foreign culture for six months sounds so appealing to me. Also, being in my late forties, it’s a lot easier for me to see the long view of a player’s professional career.