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Tazawa unlikely to alter Asian market


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DANA POINT, Calif. -- Braves general manager Frank Wren confirmed on Tuesday that his club has made a formal offer to Japanese amateur pitcher Junichi Tazawa -- but that doesn't necessarily mean there's going to be a sea change in how the 30 Major League clubs deal with young Japanese players. On Tuesday, at their first official session at the General Managers Meetings this week, the GMs were given a general overview of the Asian protocols and how to deal with Japanese and Korean amateurs under new rules established by the Japan leagues.


Major League Baseball is partners with Nippon Professional Baseball and the Korean Federation on such upcoming events as the 2009 World Baseball Classic and other international baseball competitions. They also have myriad agreements on how players can transfer at certain times in their careers.


"The [GMs] were told that the Commissioner's Office has had some discussions with top officials from Japan and Korea," said Jimmie Lee Solomon, MLB's executive vice president of baseball operations, who was in the room. "There are some concerns about individual players and that maybe we need to sit down with [the Japanese and Koreans] to discuss some of our various protocols."


As far as MLB is concerned, there are no restrictions on signing Asian amateurs; those players are not included in the annual First-Year Player Draft. Instead, they are handled as free agents, just like youngsters from Latin American countries outside the U.S. commonwealth of Puerto Rico.


But Japanese baseball officials have long worried about losing amateurs to MLB and the ripple effect that might have on professional baseball in their country. Thus far, Kazuhito Tadano and Mac Suzuki are the only Japanese players to have played in the big leagues without playing Japanese pro baseball first.


To that end, Japanese officials have instituted a strict return policy on youngsters who opt to sign with MLB teams first: a three-year waiting period after they leave the U.S. for high school players and two years for college or industrial league players before they can join any of the 12 Nippon professional teams.


Scott Boras, the agent who signed pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka to a six-year, $52 million contract with the Red Sox in 2006, said he hates to have restrictions placed on any amateur player.


"Obviously, they should be able to choose where they work," Boras said, "although there are more than a few baseball people who don't agree with my liberal approach to that."


But Boras added that he does understand the delicate nature of MLB's relationship with the Japanese and Koreans.


"Each nation should be able to determine what's best for its citizenry or youth," Boras said. "I think we need to be very guarded about any boundaries the Japanese government or [Nippon] baseball places on their contingent. Their sovereignty remains important on so many fronts."


Those restrictions didn't stop Tazawa, a 22-year-old right-hander who pitches in one of Japan's industrial leagues, from asking Nippon Baseball officials to forsake him in their recent draft of amateur players because he's seeking a spot in the Major Leagues. They did.


That didn't stop the Braves, who are reportedly vying with the Red Sox for Tazawa. The Cubs and Marlins have also been mentioned as suitors.


"We met with [Tazawa] and his representatives [on Monday] -- his coach, actually -- and made him an offer," Wren said. "I saw him pitch three times myself when I was over in Japan in September, and we liked what we saw. I don't want to get into a complete evaluation of him, but he has very good stuff."



Wren declined to define the amount or nature of the offer -- whether it was a Major League or Minor League deal. The Braves dipping into the Japan leagues is relatively new for that franchise. The Yankees, Red Sox and Dodgers have developmental and scouting arrangements with individual Japanese clubs. All three have been very aggressive in signing players from the Japan leagues, but all have previously gone for established stars.


Under Japanese rules, nine-year free agents are clear to sign with other teams without compensation to the originating club. Any player with less than that amount of experience has to be posted with the Commissioner's Office in what is a blind one-time bidding process.


The winner pays that non-refundable bid to the originating club for the rights to negotiate a deal with the individual player and has 30 days to do so.


The most famous are the $13.1 million posting fee the Mariners paid in 2000 to the Orix BlueWave for the rights to outfielder Ichiro Suzuki and the $51.1 million paid by the Red Sox in 2006 to the Seibu Lions for the rights to Matsuzaka. Both were records at the time.


The Yankees signed outfielder Hideki Matsui as a nine-year free agent after the 2002 season.


Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said on Tuesday that his club has no interest in Tazawa, who reportedly throws a mid-90s fastball, an overhand curveball and a split-finger fastball.


Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein wouldn't disclose whether his club is pursuing Tazawa, although published reports indicate that Boston might be the front-runner.


Wren said that he knows his offer is just part of the ongoing process.


"I don't know the answer to when he wants to make a decision," Wren said. "He has another tournament to pitch in in a couple of weeks, and he's meeting with some other clubs. I'm not exactly sure of the timetable."


No matter what it is, don't expect the MLB floodgates to open too soon for a group of Asian amateur players. Each one will be handled on a case-by-case basis.


"Japan just did change some of its rules," Solomon said, "and we wanted our clubs to be cognizant of these rule changes and the impact it might have on them. We need to make sure that we think about these things as we move forward."



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