Japanese professional baseball (NPB) pitcher Roki Sasaki, who had been at odds with his team over his desire to play on a bigger stage, has finally signed a contract with the Chiba Lotte Marines.
On the 26th, the team announced, “We have completed a 2024 contract with Sasaki. Sasaki will hold a press conference in the next few days.”
Sasaki reportedly asked the club to allow him to enter Major League Baseball (MLB) early after the 2023 season, but was denied. Chiba Lotte manager Masato Yoshii, who played in Japan and the Major League Baseball during his playing days, expressed his opposition to Sasaki’s request, saying, “It will not be too late for him to repay the favor of his current club and enter the United States.”
The local reaction to Sasaki’s signing was also chilly. Under the US-Japan baseball agreement, Japanese players who try out for the major leagues before the age of 25 can only sign “minor league” contracts. Sasaki was born in 2001 and falls under this category.
Even if he does sign a contract, he can only receive a maximum of $5.75 million (about $7.7 billion) in signing bonus money and a maximum of $1.44 million (about $1.9 billion) in transfer fees.
Sasaki has also only played three seasons in the professional ranks. He made his debut in a Chiba Lotte uniform in 2021, going 3-2 with a 2.27 ERA in 11 games and 63⅓ innings pitched. In 2022, he went 9-4 with a 2.02 ERA in 20 games and 129 1/3 innings. Last season, he only started 15 games due to injury. In 91 innings, he went 7-4 with a 1.78 ERA.
While he has a hard-hitting fastball that tops out at over 160 kilometers per hour, and he even threw a perfect game in 2022, Sasaki has never spent a full season as a starter. For a variety of reasons, it was widely believed that Sasaki’s move to the major leagues was premature and didn’t make sense for both the player and the organization.
Undeterred, Sasaki ended up being the only player in all 12 Nippon Professional Baseball clubs to not complete his contract for the 2024 season. “Rakuten Golden Eagles outfielder Ryosuke Tatsumi completed his contract, leaving Sasaki as the only unsigned player,” Japanese media outlets such as Sportshochi reported on Feb. 26, adding, “There is still time until the start of spring training (Feb. 1), but there is a possibility that Sasaki will train at his own expense (due to the lack of a contract).”
It was also reported that Sasaki had already left the Nippon Professional Baseball Organization last year, further fueling the controversy. “There have been cases of veterans leaving the organization, such as Norichika Aoki, who returned from playing in the Major Leagues, but it is unusual for a young player to leave the organization,” Sportshochi pointed out.
An official from the organization told Sportshochi, “The reason for Sasaki’s departure is unclear. We want to support him in his major league endeavors, but we don’t think fans will look favorably on this process.”
Sasaki, who had become a hot potato, dropped his tail with spring training just around the corner. For now, he will continue to wear the Chiba Lotte uniform. It will be interesting to see what Sasaki has to say in future press conferences.