Back in October, I wrote that it appeared the Seattle Mariners were not ready for right-hander Masahiro Tanaka, the Japanese ace who would like his Rakuten club to post him this winter. The premise of that piece was that it was too bad Tanaka did not appear to be a target, because he seems to be a great investment opportunity for the M’s. One of the reasons why I suspected Seattle might think they weren’t ready for such a financial commitment was that doing so for a club that had pretty much no chance to win in 2014 was likely to push them away. In that sense, I get why they might think so. Again, this was my speculation on their situation.
Seven weeks later, things have changed. General manager Jack Zduriencik has hired a new manager and coaching staff, acquired Logan Morrison via trade and signed Corey Hart and Willie Bloomquist to free-agent contracts. Zduriencik received enormous support from ownership when the club signed Robinson Cano, and the ONLY decision for this organization today is for that same ownership group and CEO Howard Lincoln to get out that checkbook and go hard after Tanaka, if he is indeed posted.
Love him or hate him, believe in him or not, Zduriencik is this club’s GM for the immediate future. Cano’s deal is 100 percent guaranteed, and those guarantees start right away. Not in 2015, not as soon as the Mariners’ RSN money kicks in, right now. Make it count, as I wrote a few weeks back.
The new posting system regulations limits the bidding maximum to $20 million. All teams that meet the “release fee” requested by the Japanese club can negotiate with the player. If a contract is agreed upon, that team will pay the fee to the Japanese club. In Tanaka’s case, the contract will dwarf the release fee, and may very well exceed the 6-year, $56 million deal Yu Darvish inked with the Texas Rangers prior to the 2012 season.
It may take upwards of $70 million to get Tanaka to sign on the dotted line, likely on a deal at least five years long, maybe six. That’s a lot of guaranteed money, but Tanaka is a better investment than is any of the remaining starting pitchers on the free agent market.
Tanaka, 25, stands about 6-foot-2 and 210 pounds. He throws from a high three-quarters arm slot and has a slightly long arm path. His arm speed is terrific, however, and the wrist cuff he employs at the back of his delivery does not appear to negatively impact anything else he needs to do to stay on top of his pitches and finish his breaking ball.
The right-hander uses a four-seam fastball that sits 91-93 mph and touches 95 on occasion. It’s a fairly true fastball, but he commands it well; there is some concern that if he throws up in the zone as much in the states as he does in Japan that he’ll be hurt by the long ball.
His best pitch is a plus splitter he throws in the 85-88 mph range — he has terrific arm speed on the pitch — but he also throws a softer version, more like a true changeup, in 80-82 range. His slider has two-plane break at 85-86 mph and he also offers a curveball in the low-80s. At times his curveball is the better of the two breaking balls, but he’s thrown the slider more the past few years. He can throw both pitches for called strikes, and the slider is a solid swing-and-miss pitch.
Tanaka possesses plus control with average fastball command. He repeats his delivery well and offers deception and some athleticism. If he throws the fastball downhill he’ll be very difficult to hit and could fit in MLB as a No. 2 or 3 starter.
The Mariners’ Payroll
We don’t know what the organization’s limits will be. We don’t know if there even is a set number, let alone know what that number actually is. What we do know is that Lincoln and his business people shrewdly negotiated an opt-out in their TV deal, which allowed them to eventually acquire majority interest the RSN, which will be an extremely lucrative asset for them starting next season.
We also know there is no salary cap in baseball and that the M’s are not even remotely close to the luxury tax threshold. Cano, Hart and Morrison are not nearly enough if this organization has aspirations of avoiding the wasting of Year 1 of Cano’s 10-year deal. They should continue to support Zduriencik in his trek to make the 2014 Mariners (and beyond) a legitimate contender — something I did not believe was humanly possible by any GM when the offseason started.
The M’s currently have $66.6 million committed to seven players. One of those, left-hander Danny Hultzen, will not play in 2014. That leaves 19 spots to fill with a combination of free agents, trade acquisitions, team-controlled options already on the 40-man roster, plus three arbitration eligibles in Michael Saunders, Justin Smoak and Morrison.
Acquiring Tanaka could cost $80-100 million in total, and the club still has other needs on top of starting pitching, but signing Japan’s best available arm would be another huge step away from the bowels of mediocrity and toward the light of winning baseball, even in the competitive American League West. There’s no reason to hang your hat on Cano. Be better to hang it on a World Series Trophy, and, hey, Mariners, as-is, you aren’t getting one anytime soon.
Let Zduriencik continue the current path. You committed to him for 2014. You committed $240 million to Cano. Continue that support. It’s the only decision to make, if you haven’t made it already.
Jason A. Churchill
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