The top Japanese high school slugger is blazing his own trail by forgoing the Nippon Professional Baseball Draft, instead opting to play college baseball in the US.
Rintaro Sasaki, a 17-year-old Japanese slugger who holds the country’s all-time high school home run record with 140, will reportedly skip out on the Nippon Professional Baseball draft and instead come to America to attend college.
Sasaki is a 6-foot, 250-pound first baseman with what Baseball America graded as 70 power in the traditional 20-80 baseball scouting scale. If that continues as he develops, Sasaki’s power could end up being one of Major League Baseball‘s top individual skills. While Vanderbilt was reportedly mentioned as his college of choice, it seems like Sasaki hasn’t yet chosen a school yet, and he’ll immediately become one of the most sought-after NCAA recruits in the nation.
In Japan, high school baseball is as big as college football and basketball in the US, with the annual summer Koshien tournament equivalent to March Madness in the States. Sasaki played under his father, Hiroshi, at Hanamaki-Higashi High, who also coached Shohei Ohtani at the same school. But while Ohtani played five seasons in Japan, Sasaki will take the US college route instead of the traditional approach Ohtani began taking after high school.
For most top Japanese players who want to move from NPB to MLB before the nine years of service time it takes to gain free agency in Japan, they have to go through a posting transfer system. All 30 clubs now have a 45-day window to negotiate with a posted player, with the NPB club receiving a certain posting fee depending on the size of the agreed-upon MLB contract.
The posting system is how Ichiro Suzuki, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Yu Darvish, and Ohtani joined MLB clubs, though the 23-year-old Ohtani was only able to sign a minor league deal with the Los Angeles Angels in 2017. Ohtani will finally hit unrestricted free agency this coming offseason.
For Sasaki, moving to the United States would make him eligible for the MLB amateur draft. If he attends a four-year school, Sasaki would be draft-eligible either after his junior season or when he turns 21. But because he’s an international player, as things stand currently, Sasaki would not be eligible to benefit from NIL deals while at college.
While Sasaki’s move to the US is highly unusual, it’s not unprecedented. Second baseman Rikuu Nishida left Japan after high school and spent two seasons at Mt. Hood Junior College in Oregon and one year at the University of Oregon before the Chicago White Sox took him in the 11th round of June’s draft. But with Sasaki’s superstar potential, he has the chance to start a real trend among Japanese players who want to reach MLB and bypass the NPB system.
Sasaki’s elite power, strong bat speed, and discipline at the plate could make him baseball’s next big Japanese import. But first, he’ll take on college baseball in a groundbreaking move that the whole world will be watching.
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