Major League Baseball’s imposed deadline for a collective bargaining agreement to be in place to avoid disruption to the regular season is tonight, and the league has already stated its willingness to cancel a month of regular season play. In response, a few players have taken to social media with seemingly tongue-in-cheek suggestions they could look into the possibility of playing in foreign leagues.
Reigning NL MVP Bryce Harper posted a picture of himself on Instagram donning a Yomiuri Giants uniform (h/t to Britt Ghiroli of the Athletic). The Giants, based in Tokyo, are a member of Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball. Braves reliever Luke Jackson tagged the Mexican League’s Toros de Tijuana in a tweet implying he could be available to sign there. Yankees outfielder Joey Gallo joked about creating a self-deprecating profile on LinkedIn (on Twitter).
Pointed quips aside, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that some players could pursue opportunities in foreign leagues if the lockout lingers into the start of other countries’ seasons. As Ken Rosenthal of the Athletic points out (on Twitter), guidance provided by the MLB Players Association to players and their representatives last November stated the union would back any effort by a player who wanted to make the jump from an MLB 40-man roster to a foreign league. “The PA would challenge any attempts by MLB to interfere with Players who choose to participate in a foreign league during a lockout,” the union wrote, shortly before the league implemented the lockout. “During the 2004-05 work stoppage, a large number of NHL players chose to play internationally.”
How many players would have interest in exploring that possibility remains to be seen. It’d certainly register as a surprise if a star like Harper or Gallo — each of whom has already banked notable earnings in their careers, albeit to different extents — made that kind of move. However, players on the fringes of 40-man rosters could more earnestly pursue those opportunities if they present themselves. Even in offseasons unaffected by a work stoppage, it’s not uncommon to see players at the very back of rosters request their release to head to a foreign league like NPB or the Korea Baseball Organization. Those deals typically come with a guaranteed salary greater than what the player might’ve made shuttling between the majors and Triple-A (and sometimes even above the MLB minimum salary).
It doesn’t seem likely we’ll see an exodus of big leaguers heading to Asian leagues. NPB and Taiwan’s Chinese Professional Baseball League limit each team to carrying four foreign-born players on their active rosters at any given time. The KBO caps teams to three foreign players with salary maximums. All KBO foreign roster spots for 2022 are already accounted for, and NPB and CPBL teams would face similar challenges in accommodating multiple players.
That’s not to say players would be completely devoid of opportunities though. The Mexican League, in particular, could be a destination. While that league places a limit of seven foreign players per team, it exempts foreign-born players of Mexican descent from that list. As Joseph Bien-Kahn of GEN explored in 2019, that loophole has incentivized teams signing players born outside of the country to search for any semblance of Mexican heritage in the player’s genealogy.
Whether any players will choose that route remains to be seen. The lockout doesn’t seem to be on the verge of a resolution, and big league players are facing the possibility of lost game checks. The MLBPA has stockpiled a strike fund in recent years, from which union members will receive stipends for an indeterminate period of time if the lockout continues. (MLBTR’s Steve Adams broke down that system in greater detail this afternoon). The chance to play in a foreign league could allow some players to supplement their income, however. If MLB indeed follows through on its stated amenability to canceling games, it’s possible the union’s support for players pursuing foreign opportunities could spur some to explore that avenue.