Several teams expect Japanese righthander Masahiro Tanaka to make the jump to Major League Baseball next season, but there could be changes to the posting system on the way that affect his future.
Earlier this year, MLB teams received a memo from the commissioner’s office stating that MLB and Nippon Professional Baseball were in discussions regarding potential revisions to the protocol agreement between the two leagues.
Nobby Ito, the NPB chief of international baseball operations, also told The Japan Times this month that MLB and NPB are in negotiations about the posting system.
Contrary to what some teams have believed, MLB confirmed that the posting system is still in existence, but declined to comment on any potential discussions to modify the agreement.
According to sources, one of the changes could include a system in which the posting fee would be capped, which in theory would give more money to the player rather than the Japanese team and allow MLB to count more money against the luxury tax. In turn, multiple teams could then be allowed to win the posting rights and compete for the player, but that system could also drive up costs for owners. Nobody seems certain what the future of the system will bring.
“We’re just operating under the idea that everything’s going to be the same way it was last year,” said one international director. “That’s the same as everyone else I talked to.”
The most prized talent in Japan is Tanaka, a 24-year-old who some scouts project as a potential No. 2 starter who can immediately step into a major league rotation. That could make him the most coveted pitcher on the market this offseason, with American League ERA leader Hiroki Kuroda unlikely to fetch a long-term contract entering his age-38 season and 29-year-old Matt Garza, who’s averaged around 2.5 wins above replacement (per Baseball-Reference.com) the last three years, next in line in terms of talent.
Tanaka, who turns 25 in November, has cemented his status as the best pitcher in Japan since Yu Darvish left and has age on his side. Though Japan used him sporadically at the World Baseball Classic in March, Tanaka ranked as the No. 1 prospect in the WBC among players not under contract to a major league team.
He’s built upon that record with a strong season for Rakuten, which is in first place in the Pacific League. Tanaka has earned attention for his perfect 17-0 record, while his more meaningful numbers—a 1.20 ERA with 130 strikeouts and 22 walks in 158 innings—have also been impressive. His ERA is the lowest in all of NPB, his strikeouts rank second in the PL and his 1.3 walks per nine innings rank second among starting pitchers with at least 50 innings in the PL.
At 6-foot-2, 205 pounds, Tanaka throws a low-90s fastball that can touch 96 mph. Even though Tanaka can reach the mid-90s, his fastball is the pitch that gives some scouts pause because it comes in on a flat plane, making it more hittable than the velocity might suggest. Tanaka has two secondary pitches that have earned grades of 60 or better on the 20-80 scouting scale, including a 70 splitter with late downward action to keep hitters off his fastball. His low- to mid-80s slider is another plus weapon, while he’ll mix in a curveball as well.
The Rangers and Yankees have sent some of their top evaluators to Japan to scout Tanaka. They could be the favorites to land him, though several other major league teams have sent scouts to Japan to follow Tanaka’s starts as well.
(No comment on the highly questionable soundtrack decision.)
Some scouts also think there’s a chance that Japanese righthander Kenta Maeda could make his way to a major league team this offseason, but most sources put the chances of that happening below 50 percent. The 25-year-old Maeda is a 6-foot, 160-pound control pitcher who several scouts project as a back-end starter in the big leagues. He’s been effective this season for Hiroshima with a 2.26 ERA, 114 strikeouts and 27 walks over 123 2/3 innings, but he’s also missed time this year with tightness in his throwing arm and to his right abdominal/rib cage area. He could benefit from waiting a year and not leaving NPB in the same offseason as Tanaka.