Carter Stewart Jr., the eighth overall pick in Major League Baseball's 2018 draft who opted instead to sign with Japan's Fukuoka Softbank Hawks, made his Nippon Professional Baseball big-league debut on Saturday. Stewart had previously been limited to pitching for the Softbank Hawks' minor-league team in the Western League.
Stewart's debut came as part of a 7-1 blowout victory against the Saitama Seibu Lions. He pitched the ninth inning, striking out two batters and walking one. Stewart recorded his first strikeout on an elevated 94 mph fastball:
Stewart, 21, has the potential to become a trailblazer for American amateurs looking to make more money upfront without damaging their long-term MLB aspirations. Stewart is believed to have signed with the Softbank Hawks for around $7 million, or $5 million more than the Atlanta Braves were willing to offer him after discovering a wrist ailment in his post-draft physical.
Stewart, advised by Scott Boras, could still make his way to the majors someday down the road. As Jeff Passan of ESPN explained in 2019, Stewart should qualify for unrestricted free agency after he turns 25, at which point he could demand a lucrative multiyear contract with a MLB team years earlier than he would've been able to otherwise -- and while having earned several millions more to date:
In a near-optimal scenario, Stewart would receive around $4 million for the next six years -- and would not reach free agency until after the 2027 season, when he will be 28. His deal with the Hawks would guarantee Stewart $3 million more and potentially allow him to hit free agency three years earlier.
Recent Collective Bargaining Agreements between MLB and MLB's Player Association have reduced the negotiating leverage and earning potential afforded to amateur players. Signing overseas, then, could become a more viable pathway if Stewart's gambit works out. Even if he gets hurt or doesn't pitch well enough to draw MLB interest in the future, his NPB contract guarantees him more money than every first-round pick from last summer's draft except one: top pick Spencer Torkelson, who received an $8.4 million signing bonus. (Austin Martin, the No. 5 pick, also received $7 million.)
Stewart is expected to be used as a reliever in the near term, though Yahoo! Japan noted is a chance he takes a turn in the rotation in place of ace Kodai Senga. Senga, himself relevant to MLB teams, suffered ligament damage to his ankle in his first start of the season and is expected to miss several months, according to journalist Jim Allen.