DETROIT -- For all the millions owner Mike Ilitch spent on free agents during the Tigers' heyday as perennial contenders, they never dipped into the Japanese market. Then-president/general manager Dave Dombrowski wasn’t a fan of the posting system, paying foreign clubs for the rights to players on top of the players' contracts.
Now, with the Tigers rebuilding off a 114-loss season, could slugging outfielder Yoshitomo Tsutsugo be the one who breaks the trend? History and logic suggest no, but with the Tigers desperately needing a hitter, there's a new posting system in place and Detroit is a different organization than the one that passed on Daisuke Matsuzaka, Hideki Okajima and countless other Japanese stars over the years.
The Tigers haven’t had a Japanese player since Hideo Nomo and Masao Kida in 2000. Nomo was a traditional free-agent signing, having already played five seasons in the Majors. Kida was a reliever who signed with Detroit after the 1998 season.
For the Tigers and plenty of other teams, there’s a lot to like about Tsutsugo, who emerged among Japan’s greatest power hitters with 139 home runs over the last four years. What makes him stand out, though, is his ability to complement that power with plate discipline. He has averaged 87 walks per season over the last four years, and he kept a relatively low strikeout rate until fanning 141 times this past season.
The wrinkle for the Tigers isn’t the talent, but the system through which to acquire it. The posting system has changed since the days when the Red Sox paid almost as much to Matsuzaka’s old team ($51 million) as they did to Matsuzaka, who signed a six-year, $52 million contract. Japanese teams now receive a fee based on a percentage of the guaranteed salary a player receives when he signs with a club.
The “release fee” is a flat 20 percent for a player who signs for $25 million or less. For players that sign for between $25 and $50 million, the fee includes 17.5 percent of the guaranteed money beyond $25 million. For contracts beyond $50 million, the posting fee includes 15 percent of that money.
It’s a more reasonable rate for Major League clubs than the old days. But for teams on a budget, it’s still a sizable expense beyond the contract itself, a premium compared to signing traditional free agents. Any team that signs Tsutsugo is going to have to be committed to him as more than a stopgap.
That would be an interesting position for the Tigers, who have essentially signed all stopgaps since going all-in on their rebuild two years ago. But with the nearing arrival of the top pitching prospects who are expected to form the heart of the rebuild, general manager Al Avila has shown a slight openness to a multiyear deal for the right player who can fit into the long-term picture.
The Tigers have position prospects in the upper levels of their system, led by infielder Isaac Paredes and center fielder Daz Cameron. The bulk of their hitting talent, however, is in the lower levels, including outfielders Riley Greene and Parker Meadows at Class A West Michigan. Notably, Detroit doesn’t have a prospect at first base, where Miguel Cabrera is a part-time option at best for next season and an inevitable full-time DH.
Though Tsutsugo is primarily a left fielder, he began his career as a corner infielder, including first base.
The more notable challenge for the Tigers is the competition for Tsutsugo. The Blue Jays have been linked to him since season’s end, when they let Justin Smoak go into free agency. The White Sox are further along in their rebuild and could use Tsutsugo to help them compete in the American League Central. Tsutsugo can negotiate with any team he chooses; the posting fee only comes into play if he signs.
For these and other reasons, any Tigers interest in Tsutsugo is a relative long shot. But even talking about prominent Japanese players is a big step in Detroit.