A question was posed in the comments section of an earlier post that wondered if Hideki is really a free agent after Nov. 15th? The question was picked up over at WasWatching and here's a recap of the findings.

Murray Chass's article in the Times does a good job in explaining how the contract was set up:

A star in Japan, Matsui was free to sign with anyone before the 2003 season, and the Yankees wanted him. They wanted him badly enough that they were willing to risk losing him after paying him $22.5 million over three years.

As a three-year major leaguer, Matsui would be eligible for salary arbitration but not for free agency. Under the collective-bargaining agreement, he needed six years in the major leagues for free agency. But if the Yankees had to put him on unconditional-release waivers at the end of his contract, it would open up the way for him to become a free agent. Even worse for the Yankees, they would not be allowed, at that point, to re-sign him until May 15, which would effectively mean he would playing somewhere else next season.

Then, Baseball Musings, a phenomal baseball site run by David Pinto, picked up the question as well and a commenter named Mike (update: who runs hs own site - Baseball Insights) was able to provide a more detailed explanation:

Teams control the rights of their players for either thier first 7 years in the minors or their first 5 in the majors, whichever comes first. This applies to all players, regardless of age. Matsui is subject to the same rules as a 16 year old signed out of the Dominican.

Since Matsui just completed his third year, he would have to deny arbitration and clear waivers before being granted free agency. Any player not yet in the majors for 5 years (or 7 in the minors) would have to go through the same process.

Usually this is not a big deal, as young players generally opt for arbitration because they don't have much established in terms of major league earning power, but Matsui is different because he has loads of experience and is an established player.

Any team could claim Matsui on waivers, but he would not be under contract with them, they would just control his rights (much like how the D-Backs control the rights to Juston Upton even though he has not yet signed with them). Matsui could then force free agency by refusing to sign if he really wanted to.

So that's that!