Masa-where-o? Handicapping the Tanaka Sweepstakes

tanaka 2Over the last several weeks, the hustle and bustle of baseball’s offseason has come to a screeching halt. We’ve reached January 21st, more than two-thirds through the offseason, and yet still, the top free agent starting pitchers remain without a team. The market waits with baited breath for the decision of one 25-year old right handed starter, Masahiro Tanaka. Despite having never pitched in the big leagues, Tanaka is considered far and away the best pitching option available.  In Japan, he was beyond dominant.  Over the past three years spanning more than 600 innings, his ERA was 1.44, averaging 7.6 strikeouts for every walk.  His 25 consecutive wins between 2012 and 2013 eclipsed a professional baseball record set by Carl Hubbell in 1937.  Tanaka seems to be the complete package, beloved by both stats and scouts.  His fastball can hit 95 miles per hour, and he has multiple sharp breaking pitches, including a wipeout slider and a diving splitter.  And with the weak crop of domestic free agent starters, Tanaka has become easily the biggest chip available.

Every part of the Tanaka pursuit has been shrouded in intrigue.  First, there was the question over whether he would be posted and allowed to transfer to the United States at all.  The posting system between the NPB and MLB underwent a massive overhaul this year, one beneficial for Japanese players but not Japanese teams.  Previously, teams would bid in a silent auction for the right to negotiate exclusively with the posted player, with the posting fee going to the NPB team; the highest ever bid, for the right to negotiate with Yu Darvish, exceeded $50 million.  But under the new system, the posting fee is limited to $20 million.  And every team willing to pay that fee is allowed to negotiate with the posted player, with the player allowed to decide which team he wishes to play for.  For a player in high demand, like Tanaka, this essentially amounts to free agency.

After giving it much thought, the Rakuten Golden Eagles decided to post Tanaka on December 26th, giving him thirty days to make a final decision.  Well, that thirty days is almost up — Masahiro Tanaka must make a decision by January 24th, this Friday.  And with Tanakamania in the stretch run, we’ve decided to handicap the race for the star’s services.

Odds provided by the online sports betting service Bovada

New York Yankees — 3/2 odds

The Yankees desperately need a starting pitcher.  Their ace right now is a 33-year old with diminishing velocity and declining statistics.  Their most effective pitcher last year turns 39 in three weeks, and posted a 5.40 ERA the last two months of the season.  And the back end of their rotation currently relies on David Phelps (4.98 ERA last year) and Michael Pineda, who has missed the last two years with a shoulder injury.  Of course, these are the newly frugal Yankees, who have a very strict $189 million budget to maintain.  But luckily, they’ve been handed a rebate by Commissioner Bud, good for one Alex Rodriguez or anything of equal or lesser value (the merits of this decision, and the concerns about it, have been detailed by Fangraphs’ Dave Cameron here).  At any rate, the Yankees once again have money to spend, and there is no better player for them to spend it on than Tanaka.

Los Angeles Dodgers — 11/4 odds

The Dodgers have plenty of pitching.  They recently locked up the best pitcher in baseball, Clayton Kershaw, for the forseeable future, and he didn’t come cheap.  Between Kershaw, Korean southpaw Hyun-Jin Ryu and former Cy Young winner Zack Greinke, they’ve already got one of the best front threes in the sport.  And they have already added another starter, Dan Haren, to a 1 year, $10 million deal.  So why would the Dodgers pursue Tanaka?  Simply, because they can.  The Dodgers seemingly lack a payroll limit; they have a record television contract leading to record revenues, and an ownership group willing to spend those extra revenues on payroll.  Tanaka is the best pitcher on the market, and the Dodgers would be made better by signing him.  For a team with little to no payroll concerns, that’s reason enough.

Seattle Mariners — 5/1 odds

Ever since the Mariners signed Robinson Cano to that 10 year, $240 million contract, the baseball world has been waiting for the other shoe to drop in the Pacific Northwest.  Even with Cano in the fold, the Mariners remain far short of the Athletics, Rangers and Angels in terms of talent.  Without several other big moves, the Mariners cannot and will not contend for the postseason, making the Cano signing seem nonsensical.  While the Mariners’ rotation has two stalwarts in Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma, plus some very talented young arms in James Paxton and Taijuan Walker, the team could use another high-caliber arm.  And unlike trading for David Price (which the Mariners have discussed), signing Tanaka would cost only money.  Of course, with the Mariners front office in disarray, we can’t be sure if they would be willing to spend the money to make Tanaka a Mariner.

Chicago Cubs — 7/1 odds

According to the most recent reports, the Cubs have made a heavy push to bring Tanaka to the North Side.  On the surface, the Cubs’ infatuation with Tanaka makes little sense.  The team lost 96 games last year, and in the highly competitive NL Central, they are likely years away from contending.  General Manager Theo Epstein admitted as much last Friday:

We’re not trying to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes: We’re a last-place team.

So why does a last-place team want the best starting pitcher on the market?  Because he’s young.  Tanaka, at age 25, is likely to not only be good, but still be in the prime of his career when the Cubs finally reach the stage where they can contend.  Tanaka, if he lives up to the hype surrounding him, is the type of player a franchise can build around; a cornerstone upon which talent can be place to create a championship ballclub.  The problem for the Cubs is that it will be awfully hard to convince Tanaka to sign with a club that admits it is going nowhere in 2014, especially when he is pursued by so many other, contending teams.

Boston Red Sox — 10/1 odds

Unlike the Cubs, the World Series-winning Red Sox are likely to be a highly desirable destination for Tanaka, although we can’t be sure exactly where his priorities lie.  And the Red Sox do have a need in their rotation, which was above-average but hardly excellent last year.  But the Red Sox had success last year by eschewing mammoth free agent contracts in favor of adding several players on mid-level contracts.  They seem unlikely to pursue Tanaka; instead, look for them to add more reasonably-priced starters, such as Bronson Arroyo or A.J. Burnett, after Tanaka signs.

Serious Jammage’s 100% Guaranteed Correct* Prediction

*not actually guaranteed correct

There are still other teams that are involved in the Tanaka bidding process — the White Sox, Diamondbacks, and even Astros have all shown interest, with the Diamondbacks even supposedly making a serious offer.  But I’m playing it safe and saying come Friday, Masahiro Tanaka will be donning the pinstripes.  I say Yankees, on a 7 year, $135 million deal.  Unless the Dodgers decide to give him a 10 year deal and his own private island, just for the hell of it.

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