For Lower-Tier MLB Players, Deciding Where to Play Becomes A Game of Numbers
By Robbie Knopf
Why do baseball players spend their entire lives dreaming of a future in the major leagues? They want the prestige that comes with it. They want to push themselves to the limits playing against the greatest players in the world and get the opportunity to come to the plate or step to the mound when it matters most. That’s true, right? For many players it is and for almost everyone it’s a factor. But just as important if not more is the money factor. If you’re one of the best baseball players on the planet, you can sign a 100 million dollar contract and set yourself and your family for life. Even if you’re not at that level, if you can be a dependable role player you can still make 10 or 15 million dollars over the life of your career. Major League Baseball offers players the opportunity to not just play the game they love but earn amounts of money they never would have thought possible and receive financial security for their entire lives.
The problem with Major League Baseball is the players who can’t hold down a job in the major leagues. The “Quad-A” guys who bounce from Triple-A to the majors waiting for a big league opportunity but knowing they may never be good enough to seize that opportunity even if it comes. What do they do? Many of these Triple-A veterans love nothing more than the game of baseball and are willing to make sacrifices to keep their career going. But for players with families, how can the justify doing that? Their dream may be to the play in the big leagues, but if they could earn more money elsewhere, how could they not take it?
So far this offseason, ten players who saw time in the big leagues over the last two years have signed with professional teams in Japan and South Korea, and many baseball fans can recognize at least 7 or 8 of them: Andruw Jones, Brad Bergesen, Brooks Conrad, Casey McGehee, Kameron Mickolio, Aneury Rodriguez, Hector Luna, Lastings Milledge, Scott Richmond, and Adam Wilk. None of those players are anything more than backup or middle reliever types (though Jones was once an excellent player), and only Jones, Bergesen, and Conrad appeared in 50 major league games the last two years combined. However, they’re not that old- their average age was under 30 with over half the list 28 or younger (Rodriguez and Wilk both just turned 25), and all of them could reasonably expect to return to the big leagues in 2013. But in this day and age, that doesn’t matter as much. All these players would be looking at minor league contracts and everyone except maybe Jones would be facing minor league time for most of the year. They’d be making Triple-A money and just hoping that injuries open up a spot on the major league team’s roster for them. For most of these players, though, any opportunity they get would be for only a few games and then they would be sent back down. Everyone’s dream is to make the big leagues- but is it worth it when a Japanese team waves a multi-million dollar contract in your face?
Have we ever seen an exodus of recognizable players to the Far East like this before? Why is it happening? One factor has to be that the sentimental value of making the big leagues isn’t what it used to be. Players are more driven by money than the dream these days, and even if they’re not, that’s nothing enough money can’t change. For players who haven’t been able to establish themselves in the big leagues or have seen their careers trading off, deciding whether to stay in the US or go to Japan becomes crunching numbers. If you could make the same salary in the US or abroad then they would obviously choose to stay in the US, but if not, then they have to calculate of the salary they would earn plus the cost of moving their family and changing their lifestyle versus the possibility of future salaries in the US. When the numbers work out, more and more players are bolting for the Far East. The major leagues have no reason to be concerned- the most talented players are not going anywhere- but for the class of players who are no longer prospects and can’t establish themselves in the major leagues, an increasing number of players will consider heading abroad to find better salaries. For many players, making such a choice is something they could never bring themselves to do, but players have learned to evaluate all their options and realize that even if playing in the major leagues has always been their dream, sometimes they just have to do what’s best for them and their families and move on.