The starting pitching market moved at a snail’s pace in anticipation of a decision on whether or not Japanese star Masahiro Tanaka would become available this winter. Christmas Day provided an answer to that question as Tanaka was posted by his Japanese club, the Rakuten Golden Eagles, alongside a $20 million (maximum) release fee, essentially making him a free agent able to negotiate with all thirty teams.
Seattle has been seen as a logical fit given the city’s proximity to Japan as well as the previous success of other Japanese imports such as Ichiro Suzuki, Kenji Johjima, and current Mariner and former teammate of Tanaka’s, Hisashi Iwakuma. Factor in the team’s need for another starter and surplus cash still lingering, and the match is almost too obvious. Ben Badler of Baseball America suggests that the Seattle Mariners are the favorites to land the 25-year old in a preview of Tanaka’s potential market.
Badler opens the Mariners’ case by mentioning the lack of financial commitments Seattle has moving forward. Aside from Robinson Cano and Felix Hernandez, the M’s have minimal salary commitments outside of arbitration-eligible players. Once the new Regional Sports Network money the M’s are due over the next several seasons comes in, there’s reason to think that an annual payroll in the $100-120 million range would be a definite possibility. Earlier reports indicated that Seattle was close to their payroll limits for 2014 after signing Cano but could make an exception for the right player; Tanaka may just be that player.
Not only would slotting the right-hander between King Felix and Iwakuma give Seattle an elite rotation on paper, it would also ease some of the pressure that’ll fall on top prospect Taijuan Walker should he make the rotation out of Spring Training. It’s likely that Tanaka would instead be the center of attention, at least at the beginning of 2014, as the baseball world will be watching him closely. Another positive for acquiring the Japanese ace is that he’ll only cost money. The M’s have been reluctant to meet the Tampa Bay Rays’ demands of Walker and more in a trade for their ace David Price, and free agents Ubaldo Jiminez and Ervin Santana will cost the team another draft pick if they were to sign.
Badler also notes that should the M’s sign Tanaka, or any of the top available starters for that matter, they could use their prospect resources to acquire a quality outfielder since Nelson Cruz is what remains of the free agent outfield market. If that’s not enough reason to make a push for Tanaka, then I don’t know what is. With another potential ace in the fold, perhaps Seattle would be less reluctant to include James Paxton in a potential deal, especially since the righty is just 25 years old. Badler mentions Colby Rasmus of the Toronto Blue Jays as a potential trade target, but he’s a free agent after this season and may be more inclined to test the market instead of signing an extension at this time.
The New York Yankees, Los Angeles Dodgers, and Chicago Cubs are also listed as favorites in Badler’s article. The Yankees have long been connected with Tanaka given their need for starting pitching and luxury tax concerns that would’ve been eased under the old posting system. Although the new system will make things a little tougher for the Yanks, they’re still expected to be highly involved. LA on the other hand, doesn’t really have an outright need for another starter, but they seem to have more money than they know what to do with so why not? The Dodgers’ interest in Tanaka could heat up if they feel they’ll be unable to sign reigning Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw to an extension since he’ll be a free agent after this season and has a case for a record contract.
While the Dodger and Yankee connections seem relatively palatable, the Cubs aren’t quite as logical a fit since they’re still knee deep in a complete rebuild. But, considering the right-hander is still only 25 and yet to hit his hypothetical prime years, he could be a perfect fit for the Cubs’ plan. Chicago isn’t likely to be a serious contender until 2015 at the earliest, and the addition of a top rotation arm would go a long ways to making that a possibility.
Ken Rosenthal doesn’t quite share the same views as Badler however, as he reports the Arizona Diamondbacks are serious suitors for the righty’s services. Arizona was eighth on Badler’s list of potential suitors with budget limitations as their biggest hinderance in luring Tanaka. Rosenthal reports that the D-Backs were prepared to get in the bidding for Shin-Soo Choo earlier this winter, so they appear to have the resources required to spend more than $100 million on acquiring the Japanese star. Free agent Matt Garza has also been connected to the desert throughout the offseason.
Since Tanaka’s preference are relatively unknown at this point, we can only speculate about what he’s looking for in a potential contract and team. Perhaps he wants to join an immediate World Series contender, or join a high profile market such as New York or Los Angeles. Maybe he’s strictly looking for the most cash. We’ve seen speculative numbers in the $100-140 million range on top of the $20 million release fee over a contract that could be between six and eight years in length.
Many didn’t consider Seattle to be a serious landing spot for Cano earlier this winter, so there’s a realistic hope that Tanaka views the perks offered by playing in the Emerald City in the same light as the former Yankee did.
It’s early on Tanaka watch. But constant theme from interested teams is: Watch out for #Mariners. Execs think they have one big move left
— Jayson Stark (@jaysonst) January 2, 2014