Saturday, May 27, 2023

Lars And The Real Story


2023 Topps Now WBC Champs #WBCJPN-2

A couple weeks ago a commentator suggested during a Chunichi Dragons game that the Dragons needed to go out and sign Lars Nootbaar to a contract.  This got picked up on the NPB subreddit and someone asked if Nootbaar would have to go through the draft because he was of Japanese descent.  I thought that was an interesting question so I sent it off to John E. Gibson of the Japan Baseball Weekly Podcast and he and Jim Allen took up the question in last week's installment.

Before I give you their answer, let me go through my thought process on this.  My first thought was, no, he doesn't need to go through the draft.  But then I started thinking about two somewhat similar cases - one from 19 years ago and one from this past year and I wasn't so sure.

2005 BBM 1st Version #118

Michael Nakamura was born in Nara, Japan to a Japanese father and an Australian mother.  He grew up in Australia and signed his first professional contract in 1997 with the Minnesota Twins.  After spending seven years in the Twins and Blue Jay organizations (including 31 games in MLB) he decided to pursue playing in Japan.  The way he tells the story in a podcast from a couple years ago, he and the Hanshin Tigers had agreed on a two year deal, only to have Hanshin back out of it at the last minute.  He had a tryout with the Marines that went very well and he and the team were in agreement on a salary.  The Marines suggested that since he had Japanese citizenship, the Marines could draft him and then he wouldn't count against the foreign player quota.  Nakamura agreed to this and the two parties parted ways with the expectation that he would be drafted by the Marines.  He also had a tryout with the Fighters but he still was expecting to become a Marine.  On draft day, however, something unexpected happened.  NPB used to allow teams to come to agreements with players before the actual draft - I think the term usually gets translated as something "free acquisition frame". Any team that signed a player like this however lost their first two picks in the draft and if they signed a second player then they lost their third round pick as well.  The Marines signed two players like this in 2004 and therefore they didn't have a pick until the ninth pick in the fourth round.  The Fighters surprised them and Nakamura by taking him with the seventh pick in that round.  Nakamura would go on to play for the Fighters, Giants and Lions over the next eight seasons before retiring after 2012.

2023 BBM 1st Version #159

The other similar case happened just this past October.  Gosuke Katoh was born in Mountain View, California to Japanese parents.  He briefly lived in Japan but mostly grew up in the San Diego area.  He was a second round pick out of high school by the Yankees in 2013 and spent ten years in the Yankees, Padres, Blue Jays and Mets organizations.  He played in 8 total games at the MLB level, all with Toronto last year.  I have not heard anything about his decision to join NPB - it seemed a bit of a shock to everyone when the Fighters took him in the third round of last fall's draft - so I don't know if he ever entertained the thought of signing with an NPB team as a "foreign" player.  (I believe that Katoh is the only player to ever be drafted in both MLB and NPB but I may be wrong about that.)

According to John and Jim, the reason that Nakamura and Katoh had to go through the draft was that they both hold Japanese passports.  Or, perhaps more accurately, NPB knew that they both held Japanese passports.  Both players unofficially have dual citizenship - Nakamura with Japan and Australia and Katoh with Japan and the US.  I say "unofficially" because Japan does not actually allow dual citizenship with adults - people in Nakamura and Katoh's situations are supposed to pick a side when they reach 20.  But as Jim points out, countries aren't in the habit of telling each other who they've issued a passport to so it's not unusual for folks like this to have multiple passports.  From Nakamura's account, it sounds like if he'd signed with the Tigers, NPB would never have found out he had a Japanese passport - it's only because the Marines tried to get creative that he ended up subject to the draft.

So where does this leave us with Nootbaar?  Does he have a Japanese passport?  Is that why he could play for Samurai Japan in the WBC?  Well, no, he didn't need to have a Japanese passport to qualify for Samurai Japan.  There are seven rules for eligibility for a given nation's WBC squad and Nootbaar satisfied two of them -  "The player has at least one parent who is, or if deceased was, a citizen of the Federation Team’s country or territory, as evidenced by a passport or other documentation satisfactory to WBCI and the WBSC; or the player has at least one parent who was born in the Federation Team’s country or territory, as evidenced by a birth certificate or its equivalent".  So we don't know if Nootbaar has a Japanese passport, but it's likely that his mother does - and if she doesn't, she still has a Japanese birth certificate.  Nootbaar would only be subject to the draft if he has a Japanese passport AND NPB knows he has a Japanese passport.

2006 BBM 1st Version #178

One interesting tidbit from John and Jim's conversation about this was Jim commenting that what is commonly referred to as the "foreign player quota" really isn't a "foreign player quota" - it's an "undrafted player quota".  I kind of got wrapped around the axle on that as I started thinking about guys like Koji Akiyama and Takuro Ishii - great players (Akiyama's a Hall Of Famer) who were not drafted.  And these were not "free acquistion frame" signings - up until 1990, NPB limited the number of rounds of the draft to six.  Actually from 1978 to 1980 it was only four rounds.  Any player who had "signed up" for the draft and didn't get drafted was eligible to sign as an amateur free agent with any time they wanted.  Since I was pretty sure that Akiyama and Ishii weren't subject to any quotas, I kind of pushed back and asked for some clarification from John and Jim.  But a few days later something Jim had said sunk in and I realized he was right.  Jim mentioned that players from Taiwan have come to Japan to attend high school and have been subject to the draft despite not having Japanese passports.  Probably the most well known of these players is the Yang Chung-Shou who was the Fighters' (it's always the Fighters in this post) first round pick in the high school portion of the 2005 draft.  He would go on to play 16 years in NPB and the last two in indy ball in the US - you might know him better as Daikan Yoh.  Which means there are "foreign" players on NPB rosters who don't count against the so-called "foreign player quota".


Zippy Zappy said...

Regarding the Taiwan thing my mind went to the possibility that it's a leftover from the days (or even before) of Sadaharu Oh and his ROC passport but then again that's probably a stretch.
As for Lars Nootbaar I hope he doesn't have to go through the draft and if he ever does go to Japan he can pick where he wants to as a free agent.

Brady DiCarlo said...

I had no idea the Fighters were involved in half of these situations.

NPB Card Guy said...

@Zippy Zappy - You might be on to something there with Oh

@Brady DiCarlo - Yeah, I'm half expecting the Fighters to be the team that eventually signs Nootbaar

Nick Vossbrink said...

This is interesting stuff. Also I had no idea Katoh was in Japan now. I hope he does well. I liked him in Trenton.

NPB Card Guy said...

He just called up to the top team and got his first NPB hit this past Thursday

Sean said...

Very interesting post! I read that NPB subreddit post and thought it was an odd bit of speculation, why would he be remotely interested in playing for the Dragons?

Anyway, Nootbar's nationality is a bit complicated, but I don't think he would be a Japanese national. Under the Nationality Act, a person born to a Japanese national automatically gets Japanese nationality at birth. So if his mother was Japanese when he was born, then he would be Japanese.

However, since he was born in the US and gained US nationality under American law at birth, in order to retain his Japanese nationality his parents would need to have filed a reservation for him under their Family Registry in Japan. If they didn't, he would have lost his Japanese nationality. I don't know if anyone did that, but if they did it probably would have been mentioned in the press by now.

There is a process for someone who lost their nationality in that way to get it back, but he would have to renounce his US citizenship in order to do so, which I think is unlikely.

NPB Card Guy said...

There's also that whole "under contract to the Cardinals" thing too.

That's interesting about his potential Japanese citizenship. Like you, I suspect he is not one but I guess we'll find out for sure at some point. I think it's pretty likely he'll try to play in NPB someday.