Free Agency: To Pursue or Not to Pursue Orix’s Itoi

Here’s a basic rundown of the free agency situation in NPB. For players to acquire the right to become domestic free agents, they must have served on a team’s top squad for at least seven years (if involved in a trade, the years from the previous team count). Then they must apply to the commissioners’ office for the right. At season’s end (the final game of Nippon Series), they must declare their intent about whether or not they wish to exercise that right. Seven business days after the end of the season, the commissioner announces the list of players who are eligible free agents. All teams may negotiate with those players from 3 pm of the day the commissioner makes his announcement.

No team is allowed to sign more than two free agents per offseason (this does not include foreign players), unless the number of free agents exceeds 20. If there are 21-30 free agents, teams may sign up to 3. If there are 31-40 free agents, they may sign 4, and if there are over 41 free agents, they may sign 5.

However, this does not include Rank C Free Agents. What? Who? Free agents are classified as Rank A, B, or C, depending on their salary with their previous team. If they were one of the top 3 paid players the season they declare free agency, they are Rank A. If they were anywhere from 4th to 10th ranked in salary on the team, they are Rank B. Anyone else is considered a Rank C free agent.

Now, if a player signs with another team, there are rules about compensation, as follows:

Rank A – The team who “loses” its free agent gets to choose between one of two options: (1) A cash settlement worth 80% of the player’s salary in his final year with the team; or (2) A cash settlement worth 50%, plus an unprotected player (see below).

Rank B – The team who “loses” its free agent gets to choose between one of two options: (1) A cash settlement worth 60% of the player’s salary in his final year with the team; or (2) A cash settlement worth 40%, plus an unprotected player (see below).

Rank C – No cash or player compensation required.

As for “protected players”, the team who is acquiring the free agent must make a list of 28 players (not including imports, imports who have ‘Japanese status’ or draft signings from the most recent draft) whom they want to protect. Any player not on that list can be demanded by the team whose free agent is leaving them (in addition to the cash).

Now that we have that straight, let’s examine the only free agent said to be on Hanshin’s radar: Orix Buffaloes leadoff man, Yoshio Itoi. He is a local Kyoto native, and originally played with the Nippon Ham Fighters. He was drafted as a pitcher but was later converted to the outfield. After parts of six seasons there, he was traded to the Orix Buffaloes, where he has spent the past 4 years. He is 35 years old, but last season became the oldest player in league history to win a stolen bases title with 53. He is known for being in extremely good physical shape and having incredible tools and baseball sense. His career .301 average and .852 OPS speak for themselves. When he announced his intent to pursue free agency, he stated that he still believes he has room to grow, and that he wants to play for a club that believes in the potential he still has. For the record, Itoi is a Rank B free agent.

Itoi plays right field, and would probably benefit from playing on natural grass, as opposed to artificial turf. Hanshin has talked about possibly moving Kosuke Fukudome to first base in order to make room for Itoi. No other teams have been mentioned in recent days as having an interest in Itoi, although certainly with his pedigree, other teams would be willing to make him an offer if he is listening.

So the question is, should Hanshin pursue him? If so, which 28 players should they protect? In other words, whom are they willing to make available to Orix, if Itoi accepts their offer and Orix opts for option 2? Any way you look at it, the team either has to leave some of its promising youngsters unprotected, or else put some of the elderstatesmen on the block and risk (a) Orix plucking them out of Hanshin’s hands, or (b) insulting the player and possibly wrecking any chances of employing them as coaches in the future.

There are plenty of theories going around about whom the Tigers should/might leave unprotected if all this materializes. (Negotiations look to open up on November 10 at 3:00pm.) Among those theories, some suggest that Takashi Toritani be left unprotected, and that his high salary (¥400 million) would scare Orix from choosing him as compensation. Not to mention, they have a perfectly able shortstop in Ryoichi Adachi. Others say that putting Tsuyoshi Nishioka on the block is a viable option, and that given his injury history, he also would be unlikely to be stolen away. Others say Yuya Andoh, who will turn 39 this offseason, could be left unprotected but be unlikely to have to wear the ugly Buffaloes alternate unis (see right). So… whom shall we protect? Whom shall we leave exposed? Your ideas are welcome in the comment section!

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T-Ray is the founder, chief writer and Junior Executive Vice President of Hanshin Tigers English News (H-TEN). Find him on Twitter @thehanshintiger.