About two weeks ago, the Oakland Athletics won negotiating rights (through a $19 million bid) with Hisashi Iwakuma, who has played in the Japan Pacific League his entire career. Afterwards, GM Billy Beane made a couple of moves to suggest the A’s were at least 75% sure they would sign Iwakuma. Unfortunately, talks have stalled between the two sides. There are numerous reports suggesting Iwakuma wants Barry Zito (and we all know how well that went for the Giants) money or that the A’s are unwilling to negotiate beyond a $3-4 million average salary base. Either way, one of the sides has been castrated by the media as the demon.
But who’s right here? Is there enough past history of Japanese pitchers coming to the American market to justify a $15+ million average salary? Or can the A’s justify giving Iwakuma the same salary he received in Japan because of the high cost of the negotiating bid? I’ve listed some recent Japanese pitchers who made the move to the big leagues, and some meaningful figures.
Daisuke Matsuzaka (Bos): $51 million bid, 6 years, $8.6 mn average salary, 2.55 average WAR per season
Kei Igawa (NYY): $26 million bid, 5 years, $4 mn average salary, -0.1 average WAR per season*
Hiroki Kuroda (LAD): 3 years, $12 mn average salary, 3.3 average WAR per season
Koji Uehara (Bal): 2 years, $5 mn average salary, 1.5 WAR per season
Kenshin Kawakami (Atl): 3 years, $7.5 mn average salary, 2.2 average WAR per season
*Igawa was stuck in the minor leagues for 2 of his 4 seasons with the Yankees
Some general trends from these five players (while I can discuss these trends, I by no means am inferring causation, or any regression type analysis, as the sample size is just too small):
Bidding: Looking at the players who went through the bid process, in no way did they receive a $10+ million average salary. It looks like teams can use the bidding process as a sort of leverage in negotiations. While Dice-K only got $52mn from Boston, adding in the bidding costs puts Boston at a little over $100 million.
WAR: Don’t expect crazy MVP type numbers from these players. The most a team got was an average of 3 WAR per season (the Dodgers from Kuroda). Even more against Iwakuma’s case that he deserves an 8-figure salary.
From this, I don’t think Iwakuma’s side can or should use past pitchers as a guideline, as its obvious Dice-K and Igawa have failed in many ways over the past 4 years. And while I’m certain Oakland is a bit lowballing the righty, Iwakuma has no leverage. But I think it would hurt the image of both sides if a deal isn’t made. Iwakuma will look like Iwa-crazy. From a fan point of view, Beane risks further detachment from the Oakland fanbase. There’s already rumors (or even claims) that free agents don’t want to come to Oakland for numerous reasons. This just adds fuel to the fire.
On that note, there are also reports Oakland bid on Iwakuma to keep other teams from negotiating with the pitcher, since if no contract is signed, Oakland gets to keep its money. This is an obvious negative externality, and the bidding process should negate this by forcing the team to still pay at least half the bid no matter the outcome of negotiations. It’s a loophole that should not exist. It hurts the credibility of MLB, and the pitcher’s desire to compete at the highest level.