Long a favorite of Japanese teams, late-blooming AAA/AAAA stars have frequently found themselves confronted with a difficult decision in their late 20s/early 30s – do I keep trying to “make it” in MLB, or do I cash in by playing for a few years in Japan while my body is still productive?
It’s not a decision I envy (well, actually, I guess I do), and it can’t be a particularly easy one for guys who have (1) grown up and played minor league ball for so many years dreaming only of that one chance to play in the bigs, and (2) have made peanuts along the way.
And it’s a decision that will soon face 28-year-old first baseman, Bryan LaHair.
According to scouting sources, numerous Japanese teams have been scouting and are prepared to make offers to LaHair, if he becomes a free agent following the 2011 season.
LaHair said he has had conversations with some representatives of Japanese baseball. If the Cubs keep him on their 40-man roster, however, he will continue to be under the team’s control.
There is some precedent of the Cubs allowing an Asian club to pursue one of their players. Former Cubs’ first baseman Micah Hoffpauir was sold to the Nippon Ham Fighters in the Japanese Pacific League in the fall of 2010 for $200,000. Hoffpauir then signed a two-year contract. He’s making $700,000 in 2011.
Although LaHair is intrigued by the interest from Japan, his heart is set on being a major league player.
“Not coming from a lot of money, when you hear offers, you have to consider it,” LaHair said. “But the dream is to be in the major leagues. And this is where I want to be.”
As Levine notes, Hoffpauir, as well as former Cubs Bobby Scales and Matt Murton, have made some green in Japan when their MLB futures failed to materialize to the level they’d hoped. It’s certainly not a decision anyone can criticize, and, for those three guys, I’m happy they’ve found success.
The Cubs’ decision on LaHair will be equally difficult. He’s shown he can play some passable outfield, so the Cubs may be more inclined to take a chance on him next Spring. To do that, though, they’ve got to keep him on the 40-man all Winter, which means one less spot with which to protect a potential prospect from the Rule Five Draft in December.
Even though the Cubs could wait until late in the year to make a decision on LaHair, if he’s already getting offers from Japanese teams, the Cubs may have to make a decision as soon as the new GM is in place. It’s not that the Cubs have to make a decision that soon, mind you. They could hold on to him as long as they want (and as long as he’s on the 40-man roster). But, that would be a pretty discourteous thing to do, and could risk LaHair’s future in Japan, assuming he doesn’t have one here.
It’s a bit of a tough spot to be in, not knowing what will happen to the roster over the Winter with trades and free agency. Striking that delicate balance between doing what’s best for the organization, and doing right by a guy like LaHair isn’t always possible. Sometimes you have to choose one or the other – though, I like to think that, when you do right by guys like LaHair, the intangible benefits to the organization pay off down the road.