Now that Yu Darvish is finally going to be posted from the NPB to MLB, let’s take a look at how international free agency works.
First, 95% or higher of all players entered MLB by signing a standard minor league contract (team-friendly, low annual pay) with a bonus at a young age, grew up in the organization and played for that team.
By the time they hit the majors, they’re under what’s called a rookie contract:
-3 years of league minimum pay.
-3 years of arbitration.
“Super 2” players are the exception to this; they get arbitration with less than three years service, but it’s usually like 2.8 years service.
At the end of their final year of arbitration, they’re free to test the free agent market unrestricted, so long as they didn’t agree to any extensions.
Players in the minors can be traded, DFA’d, etc., but the contract remains the same. As soon as their service time clock starts, they’re all getting paid the same (unless they agreed to a major league contract).
If you’re wondering why this is so common when there are so many players in MLB with so many different backgrounds, it’s because MLB is meticulous about scouting. Very few players slip through the cracks. There are academies in virtually every country in the world now. The Dominican Republic has its own developmental league. Japan has its own fully functioning professional league and independent league. MLB has, in the past 20 years, made a very strong, concerted effort to revive baseball in inner cities in America.
On top of that, as opposed to the NFL or NBA, maybe one player a year, if that, is prepared to make the jump from college to the pros. It takes years to learn the sophisticated movements for pitching and batting and make them repeatable.
Because of this, MLB gets them young. Most international players, and especially ones in the latin countries, are signed at VERY young ages (16 or 17) in order to give them more sophisticated coaching and develop them in time to be ready for the majors.
That said, the two biggest international free agent spots are Japan and Cuba.
Japan benefits from having a competitive league of its own and the league is autonomous, though Nippon Professional Baseball and MLB do have a lot of crossover. Japanese players need to accrue nine years of service time before they can hit international free agency. At that point, they can sign with any MLB or NPB team they want.
If the player wants to go to America before the service time is over, he must ask his team to put his negotiating rights up for bidding to MLB teams. This is called posting, as in “The Nippon Ham Fighters posted Hideki Matsui and the Yankees won the rights to exclusively negotiate with Matsui on a contract.”
Most NPB teams refuse to do this until eight service years are accrued because, well, why would you ship out a talent that’s MLB worthy when it’s any earlier? This is what’s happening with Yu Darvish right now.
His NPB team may decline to post him, but if they approve, MLB teams bid for the exclusive negotiating rights.
After MLB Team X wins the posting rights, Team X then signs him to a contract. Yes, Team X has to pay twice over, though the posting fee is usually taken into consideration in the contract. Every once in a while, the MLB team will pay the posting fee and be unable to reach a deal on the contract. (EDIT: This is incorrect; the team doesn’t pay the posting fee if a deal isn’t reached.) In that case, Japanese player then returns home and plays for his team again. Iwakuma and the Oakland A’s is the most recent example of this. However, this is very rare. Almost every player who’s been posted from NPB has signed to an MLB team. Because the player was already active in Japan, he almost always makes the jump directly to the majors.
Ichiro and Daisuke Matsuzaka were both posted; Hideki Matsui and Hiroki Kuroda both signed with MLB teams after accrued service time.
Only three Japanese players in history have dodged the NPB and jumped straight to MLB’s minor league system via international free agency–Junichi Tazawa was the most recent and he signed a 3-year/3 mil deal with the Red Sox in 2009. Tazawa, who went undrafted out of high school, played a year in Japan’s corporate league (junior circuit) and asked NPB teams to not draft him the following year so he could play in MLB. They all complied. Kazuhito Tadano was another, but he was disgraced by being in a gay porno. The Cleveland Indians signed him.
Cubans are usually the only ones that hit the international free agent market without restrictions because they defect. Because Cuba has such an advanced national team and development system, Cubans are usually better prepared for, and old enough to play in, the majors when they defect, though some come raw-er than others.
A Cuban player will play with his national team for however long and then, on a road trip in another country, will abandon his team. This is how he defects. After the player gets some time to adjust to living away from home, the player usually does a public workout for teams. The player sets a deadline and teams have that many days to offer a contract. The team that offers the highest-paying contract is usually the winner.
Aroldis Chapman is the most famous international free agent in recent years. Adeinis Hechevarria (another Cuban) was another international free agent, though he flew under the radar because his skills weren’t as highly valued.
These are the very few exceptions. Almost everyone else goes the scout-bonus-develop-rookie contract route.