Japanese slugger and third baseman Munetaka Murakami recently signed a three-year deal with his team, the Yakult Swallows of Nippon Professional Baseball. According to a report from The Mainichi out of Japan, as relayed by Nick Groke of The Athletic, the contract stipulates that Murakami will be posted after those three seasons.
Murakami is currently just 22 years old, turning 23 in February. Despite that young age, he’s already hit 160 home runs over his four-plus seasons in NPB. He made a brief debut in the 2018 season when he was only 18 years of age, but has been a mainstay for the Swallows over the past four campaigns. In 553 games to this point, he has hit .281/.405/.583. His home run totals in those four seasons are 36, 28, 39 and then an incredible 56 in 2022. That last number broke Sadaharu Oh’s record for most home runs hit by a Japanese-born player in the league, which he set back in 1964. (Curaçao-born Wladimir Balentien has the overall record, hitting 60 homers in 2013.)
Japanese players in NPB have to accrue nine years of professional experience before they reach international free agency, allowing them to pursue opportunities in North America. Players who wish to make the jump before that point must request to be posted by their club. Generally, NPB clubs hang onto their players until late in the nine-year window of control before posting, meaning that many Japanese players don’t join the majors until they are midway through their careers. Seiya Suzuki was posted last year going into his age-28 season. Masataka Yoshida was posted this offseason going into his age-29 campaign. Kodai Senga was never posted as his NPB club, the SoftBank Hawks, have a policy against it. He’s joining the Mets for 2023 after he will turn 30 in January.
By negotiating this posting into his contract, Murakami will be able to come over after his age-25 season, which is the youngest he could be while still being able to earn a Major League contract on the open market. International players under 25 years of age and/or with fewer than six years of professional experience are considered “amateurs” rather than professionals under MLB’s international free agency rules and are thus subject to the “bonus pool” system, where each team has an MLB-mandated cap on how much it can spend on signing bonuses.
International “amateurs” can only agree to minor league deals and signing bonuses, whereas “professionals” like Suzuki, Yoshida and Senga (i.e. players 25 and older with six-plus years of pro experience) are free to sign Major League contracts for any length and dollar amount; for example, Shohei Ohtani came over to the Angels prior to his age-23 season, settling for a $2.3MM signing bonus and was unable to reach free agency until after 2023. Had he waited two more years, he could have immediately signed a nine-figure contract.
Murakami will have no such restrictions and will be able to secure a deal of any length or dollar amount, similar to Suzuki or Yoshida. However, he will be considerably younger than those players and perhaps have an even more impressive track record of success. His 160 home runs are already close to the 182 Suzuki hit in his NPB time and more than Yoshida’s 133. His 24% strikeout rate is a bit on the high side, though that’s inflated by a 31% rate in 2019 when he was just 19 years old. It’s declined in the three subsequent seasons, getting under 21% in 2022. It’s a similar story with his walk rate, which has gone from 12.5% in 2019, increasing to 19.3% in 2022. His final batting line in 2022 was .318/.458/.711.
FanGraphs gives Murakami a 60 on the 20-80 scouting scale, giving high praise for his work at the plate but firmly declaring that he won’t be able to stick at third base. They give a 30-grade to his feet and range and say that he will have to be moved to either left field, first base or designated hitter. Nonetheless, they still say that he would be considered one of the top five prospects in the sport if he were already in a team’s system and is a future star.
If he does sign with a major league team, the club would owe a fee to the Swallows under the MLB – NPB posting agreement. That’s tied to the size of the contract itself, with the MLB team owing the NPB club 20% of the contract’s first $25MM, 17.5% of the next $25MM and 15% of any dollars thereafter. That fee is on top of any dollars guaranteed to the player himself, and subsequent earning (e.g. performance incentives, contract options) are also subject to the posting system once they become guaranteed to the player.
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