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19-year-old pitcher spurns MLB draft to sign contract in Japan

In this image, Carter Stewart and commissioner Rob Manfred stand next to each other on a stage with a brick wall.
Carter Stewart and commissioner Rob Manfred at last year's draft. Photo: Alex Trautwig/MLB Photos via Getty Images

19-year-old pitcher Carter Stewart has agreed to a six-year, $7+ million contract with the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks of the Japanese Pacific League, a groundbreaking deal that could change baseball.

Why it matters: The MLB's financial model limits the bargaining power of amateurs, pays minor leaguers sub-poverty-level wages and keeps players locked into below-market contracts through their peak years. The only reason players put up with this is because there's no alternative. Stewart may have just created one.

The backdrop: Stewart was drafted No. 8 overall in the 2018 draft by the Atlanta Braves. Unable to reach a deal, he went to junior college and was expected to be a second-rounder in next month's draft.

By the numbers: Which route would you take?

  • MLB draft: He'd sign for ~$2 million then be paid next to nothing in the minors. Ideally, he'd make the majors by 2022, where he'd earn the minimum for three years (currently ~$600,000). That's less than $4 million over six years and he wouldn't hit free agency until 2027.
  • Japan: Guarantees himself $7 million, while also becoming an international free agent three years earlier in 2024 when he's just 25 years old.

The big picture: Even if this doesn't start a trend of players going overseas (not everyone is willing to spend their early 20s in Japan), it's a bad enough look for MLB that it could force the league to reassess its current system.

  • The most prestigious baseball league in the world just lost one of America's best young prospects to Japan because he can make more money there. Those optics aren't great.

The bottom line: "Stewart, in the end, is a proxy for something bigger — a haymaker at a system capable of careening out of control until brought back into balance," ESPN's Jeff Passan writes:

  • "Perhaps [he] is that counterweight. Maybe it's someone after him. Could be that nothing changes and this is but a blip. Whatever the case, it's a noble effort, an admirable risk and a fascinating story."

Go deeper: 2019 MLB mock draft