Who is Masahiro Tanaka?

Masahiro Tanaka is a 6’2,” 205 pound right hand pitcher who won 24 and lost none for the Rakuten Golden Eagles of the Japanese NPB (Nippon Professional Baseball, the MLB equivalent in Japan) league in 2013. His team has now posted his contract as available to the highest bidding Major League team. This new posting sysem allows the Japanese team to notify its Commissioner that it will “post” the contract of a player and set a price that is not more than $20,000,000. The Japanese Commissioner then notifies the MLB Commissioner who notifies his teams that anyone willing to pay the posting fee may negotiate with the player, without limit on the compensation paid. If a team is successful in signing the player, it is then obligated to pay, on an installment plan, the set posting fee. In the Tanaka case, that is the maximum of $20,000,000. So now the fun begins. All Major League teams can bid on this pitcher, who, at age 25, is probably going to improve with time. If you haven’t heard of Masahiro Tanaka until now, you will hear a lot more about him in the future.

There have now several very successful Japanese pitchers in the Major Leagues. Most recently, we watched Koji Uehara finish the World Series for the Red Sox. For the Yankees, Hiroki Kuroda (11-13, 3.31ERA, 201IP, 1.162WHIP) was their best pitcher. Seattle’s Hisashi Iwakuma (14-6, 2.66ERA 219.2,IP 1.01WHIP) was an All-Star and third in Cy Young balloting. The one Japanese pitcher that I love seeing is Yu Darvish of the Texas Rangers 13-9, 2.83ERA, 209.2, 1.07WHIP). From what I have read, I think Tanaka is most like Darvish. That is he throws hard. One commentator talked about a splitter and another the fastball. This fellow, therefore, has two dominant pitches. He can also be expected to pitch 200 innings or more. A major league team needs to pitch 1450 ininngs a season and this will be done by about twenty pitchers, so one pitcher who pitches 14% of these and does so with a high probablity of winning the game is extremely vauable. How valuable is Tanaka and to whom is he most valuable-that is the question?

Clearly, there will be a bidding war for this fellow and I am guessing the usual prospects will be active. These are the Yankees, Red Sox, Mariners, Dodgers, Diamondbacks, Cubs, and Rangers. (The Angels are out of this for reasons I will discuss later.) The Yankees want to out bid the Red Sox for everything, so if the Red Sox bid, look for the Yankees to try to out do them. Then the Dodgers may just want this player very badly and bid accordingly. The Diamond Backs may play at the game, but they’re not nuts, so probably will not mortgage the future for one pitcher. The Mariners just want to get better and have strong Japanese connections, but they have limits, market limits. That leaves the Cubs and Rangers.

I think either of these teams can make a deal that is around the Zack Greinke, six year $147M figure, my instinct, based merely on a hunch, is that the Cubs maybe the team to beat here. After making moves that promised but didn’t deliver results, this may be the chance to do something.

Now to why the Angels are out of it. This team signed Albert Pujols to a long term, $240M contract, that soaks up lots of salary space. More importantly, the Angels are facing the major challenge facing teams, the super star heading for free agency. In this case, that is Mike Trout. He is the best player (along with Miguel Cabrera) and must be signed soon. The Pujols contract sets the market for Trout in LA. Layering a Tanaka contract just under that would be very risky for the Angels. It is risky because Pujols may be finished, and Tanaka is a bright prospect, but not without risk as not every Japanese player has starred in the Majors, as shown by Kei Igawa, Hideki Irabu and the Twins collosal fail in Tsuyoshi Nishioka. Having half of the salary obligation in a few players is a disaster and a team needs 25 skilled players to win pennants.

We will know the outcome in a month, and Masahiro Tanaka will be very well known.

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