Baseball America

Masahiro Tanaka Sweepstakes Preview: Ranking The Top 10 Teams For The Japanese Ace

Teams have spent the last year preparing for the opportunity to sign Masahiro Tanaka this offseason.

The new posting agreement with Japan might have created some uncertainty and a slight delay in the process, but teams have eagerly anticipated the rival of Japan’s best starting pitcher, even before he ranked as the No. 1 prospect at the World Baseball Classic.

With several teams viewing Tanaka as an immediate frontline starter, the competition will be fierce. So fierce that his status has held up the rest of the top free agent starters, with Ervin Santana, Matt Garza and Ubaldo Jimenez waiting for Tanaka’s market to settle by the Jan. 24 deadline before teams move on to Plan B.

One year after the Dodgers signed Zack Greinke to a six-year, $147 million contract, teams could be looking at a similar total package for Tanaka, including a $20 million “release fee” tacked on at the end going to Tanaka’s Japanese team, the Rakuten Eagles. While Greinke had a track record against major league hitters, he also signed his contract at 29. Tanaka is 25, putting him in an age group with Chris Sale, Stephen Strasburg, Matt Harvey and Matt Moore.

Based on conversations with people throughout the industry, these are the top 10 contenders to sign Masahiro Tanaka:


Tanaka Tracker

Sept. 13 Game Report
Sept. 6 Game Report
Aug. 30 Game Report
Aug. 23 Game Report
World Baseball Classic Top 10 Prospects


THE LURKERS
10. Los Angeles Angels

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Even with a pitcher-friendly park, the Angels ranked 23rd in baseball in ERA among starting pitchers. C.J. Wilson and Jered Weaver return, while Jason Vargas, a steady starter, signed with the Royals. The Angels will count on Garrett Richards to play a bigger role next season, and last month’s trade to acquire Tyler Skaggs and Hector Santiago should round out the rotation.  Mark Mulder, on a minor league deal, figures to be insurance.

There’s no help coming from a farm system that is historically awful. Signing Tanaka would be a massive boost for the Angels starting rotation without costing them their 2014 first-round pick, allowing them to add much-needed young talent to the system.

The problem for the Angels is they may lack the financial flexibility to sign Tanaka. Between Wilson, Weaver, Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton, the Angels have $72 million committed to four players  in 2014. (They’re also still paying Vernon Wells $18.6 million to play for the Yankees.) By 2016, that quartet is owed a combined $97 million.

Then there’s Mike Trout, who has one more year of cheap labor left before he’ll be eligible for three years of record-breaking arbitration. Bill Shaikin spoke to a source who said Trout could be in line for $15 million, $20 million and $25 million those three years. The Angels would love to lock up Trout to a long-term contract, but even if they don’t, he’s going to be expensive. By 2016, they might have $115 million  committed to five players.

Even with one of the game’s biggest payrolls, finding the wiggle room to squeeze in Tanaka is going to be difficult.

9. Boston Red Sox

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The Red Sox have a solid starting rotation for 2014, but their pitching is more vulnerable than advertised. After next season, Jon Lester and Ryan Dempster are free agents. Jake Peavy, barring a 256-inning season that would kick in his $15 million player option for 2015, is also going to hit free agency, and John Lackey after the 2015 season. Clay Buchholz brings his own question marks after looking like a frontline starter when healthy but throwing slop in the playoffs. Felix Doubront is, at best, a No. 4 starter.

Boston boasts a formidable group of upper-level starting pitching candidates in Henry Owens, Allen Webster, Matt Barnes and Brandon Workman. So there isn’t the sense of urgency for the Red Sox to sign Tanaka as there is for, say, the Yankees. Pitcher attrition being what it is, the Red Sox should be happy if two of those four turn into mid-rotation starters or better.

But Tanaka would significantly boost their 2014 rotation, perhaps even becoming the team’s top starter. Just as important, as a 25-year-old potential No. 2 starter, Tanaka would represent a significant upgrade for the 2015 season and beyond, exactly the type of player the Red Sox should use their financial advantages to pursue.

8. Arizona Diamondbacks

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The pitcher with the best stuff and highest ceiling in the Diamondbacks organization is 21-year-old Archie Bradley, who spent the majority of the 2013 season in Double-A. Bradley has ace potential, but given his present command, the Diamondbacks can’t count on him breaking camp with the major league club.

But by 2015, a starting rotation led by Bradley, Tanaka and Pat Corbin would be formidable, with Brandon McCarthy, Wade Miley, Trevor Cahill and Randall Delgado rounding out the rotation next season.

Craig Shipley, who ran Boston’s international scouting when the Red Sox signed Daisuke Matsuzaka, is now a member of Arizona’s front office. The Diamondbacks had someone at several of Tanaka’s starts this year. So there’s likely some comfort level internally in signing a high-end Japanese professional such as Tanaka.

With the Diamondbacks not having a protected first-round pick, Tanaka should be even more appealing. But ultimately, the Diamondbacks might not have the checkbook power of the higher-payroll clubs on this list.

7. Toronto Blue Jays

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Toronto’s starting pitching last year was a disaster. Blue Jays starters posted a 4.81 ERA, the second-highest in baseball. Marcus Stroman should be able to help next season and Aaron Sanchez is on the way, though given his present command he probably won’t be a factor in 2014.

After missing out on Yu Darvish two years ago, the Blue Jays have been closely monitoring Tanaka, sending several top evaluators to Japan to scout him in person. There’s no question Tanaka would make Toronto a much better team next season.

But even if the Blue Jays forecast Tanaka as a frontline starter, do they have enough talent to put around him to shoot for a playoff spot next season? Tanaka would help them beyond the 2014 season, of course, but after winning 74 games last year and looking at this point like the worst team in the American League East, is now the time for the Blue Jays to invest north of $100 million in one pitcher?

It’s possible. The Blue Jays wouldn’t spend considerable time and energy evaluating Tanaka if they weren’t interested, but the team is in a difficult spot. Tanaka would upgrade their biggest weakness, but the price tag might prohibit them from upgrading other areas. Since the Blue Jays have two protected first-round picks, shooting for Ervin Santana or Ubaldo Jimenez, two less expensive options where they would have an edge because of the compensation picks attached, might be more feasible. Or, if they consider themselves far enough behind the rest of the AL East, they could hold off on major free agent acquisitions for at least another year until they’re ready to contend.

6. Texas Rangers

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The Rangers have arguably the best international scouting department in baseball, one that’s comfortable making aggressive plays for top foreign professionals from Cuba and Japan. Yu Darvish has been a tremendous success, and the Rangers had one of the heaviest scouting presences in Japan to follow Tanaka’s every move this season.

With Darvish, Derek Holland, Matt Harrison and Martin Perez, the Rangers’ top four starters are all under team control for the next three seasons, with Alexi Ogando capable of filling a spot in either the rotation or the bullpen. The Rangers don’t have any expected frontline starters in their farm system—we’ll wait and see on 2013 signee Marcos Diplan—but Luke Jackson, Nick Martinez and Alec Asher should all open the year in Double-A Frisco, with 2013 first-rounder Alex Gonzalez likely to get there quickly if he doesn’t join them on Opening Day.

The Rangers’ biggest needs going into 2014 were corner bats, which they addressed with big financial commitments to Prince Fielder and Shin-Soo Choo. But Tanaka would also upgrade their rotation, since with the exception of Darvish, Tanaka is better than every other pitcher in the Rangers organization. Whether that’s the best use of their resources is something the Rangers will have to calculate, but they have the history and the comfort level to move on him if they want.

THE SLEEPER

5. Detroit Tigers

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Detroit is the dark horse in the Tanaka sweepstakes. Even though the Tigers had baseball’s most dominant starting rotation in 2013, signing Tanaka makes sense. Their rotation still has three frontline starters in Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer and Anibal Sanchez. But Scherzer, a Boras Corp. client, is one year from free agency, with MLB Trade Rumors forecasting a $14 million price tag in his final year of arbitration.

Meanwhile, the Tigers have spent their offseason moving money off the books. When they traded Prince Fielder to the Rangers for Ian Kinsler, they cleared roughly $76 million in salary commitments. The Doug Fister trade to the Nationals was puzzling, but it wiped his last two arbitration years off their ledger, with MLB Trade Rumors pegging him for a $7 million salary next season. That’s at least $83 million in savings.

That puts the Tigers in prime position to land Tanaka, with flexible options for doing so. A starting rotation of Verlander, Scherzer, Tanaka, Sanchez and Rick Porcello would be the best in baseball. The Tigers could also sign Tanaka and make a trade, with Scherzer, who turns 30 in July, a prime trade candidate. Trading Scherzer would potentially clear another $14 million that could be used on Tanaka while also fetching a strong return to boost the team in other areas—perhaps an outfielder from the Dodgers.

Instead of trying to extend Scherzer, the Tigers could sell high on the American League Cy Young winner coming off a career year—something that seems right up the alley of general manager Dave Dombrowski—while betting on the rest of Tanaka’s 20s rather than the first half of Scherzer’s 30s. Or the Tigers could keep Scherzer and trade Porcello, who’s under control for two more years with an $8 million projected salary through arbitration next season. With lefthander Drew Smyly capable of moving to the starting rotation, the Tigers have elastic options.

Detroit’s farm system is another reason the Tigers should pursue Tanaka. The Tigers know they are thin on starting pitching prospects at the upper levels. There’s lefthander Jose Alvarez, who saw some action in the big leagues this year, lefthander Robbie Ray, who arrived in the Fister deal, and Double-A righthander Drew VerHagen, a high groundball arm who doesn’t miss bats and isn’t a lock to remain a starter, but little else. Righthanders Jake Thompson and Jonathon Crawford are promising arms in the lower levels, but the Tigers can’t count on them helping in the next two years.

The Tigers have shown a keen eye for talent and striking at the right moment. Tanaka could be their latest opportunity to capitalize on a premium player who fits for them.

THE HEAVYWEIGHTS

4. Chicago Cubs

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The Cubs have one of the best farm systems in baseball. Javier Baez, Kris Bryant, Albert Almora and Jorge Soler are all premium talents, and whoever they get with the No. 4 pick in June should be another high-end prospect. It’s a system heavy on bats, light on pitching, with righthanders C.J. Edwards and Pierce Johnson the exceptions on the mound.

The Cubs don’t have much money locked into contracts for next season or beyond. Edwin Jackson is owed $11 million per year through 2016. The next most expensive player on the roster is Starlin Castro, who is owed $5 million, $6 million and $7 million over the next three seasons. The Cubs don’t have anyone else they’re going to owe more money than that over the next few seasons.

Tanaka would immediately become the team’s best starting pitcher. But clearly the Cubs won’t be playoff contenders in 2014. In a best-case scenario, 2015 might be in the picture, but a more conservative projection would have them making their push in 2016. That would mean paying Tanaka in the neighborhood of $20 million per year for at least one, perhaps two seasons where he won’t have a chance to pitch in a playoff game. With all the risks inherent in pitchers, is it worth committing that to Tanaka today in the hope that he’ll pay off as a frontline starter in a few years? Or would they be better off waiting another year or two to start investing in high-end free agents?

It’s an internal debate the Cubs must wrestle with, but their track record suggests they might be willing to strike on Tanaka. When Hyun-Jin Ryu became available through the posting system last year from the Korea Baseball Organization’s Hanwha Eagles, the Cubs made a push to sign him.

They’re certainly comfortable in Asia, where the Cubs have one of the game’s strongest scouting presences. Last year they signed Kyuji Fujikawa from Japan for two years, $9.5 million. They have been among the most aggressive teams in the Asian amateur market, signing shortstop Hak-Ju Lee from South Korea for $725,000 in 2008, righthander Jen-Ho Tseng for $1,625,000 from Taiwan this summer and a wave of other amateur players from the region. Their scouts know the territory well, and team president Theo Epstein showed he’s comfortable going after top Japanese talent when he signed Daisuke Matsuzaka in Boston.

If the Cubs are comfortable with swallowing at least one season of paying Tanaka handsomely to pitch for a bad team at the start of the deal, they have the scouting history and the financial resources to bring him to Chicago.

3. Los Angeles Dodgers

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It’s tough to figure out where the Dodgers might go with Tanaka, but their seemingly limitless checkbook makes them a power player on anybody they want.

The Dodgers’ 3.13 ERA among their starting pitchers last year was the best in baseball. They have Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke and Hyun-Jin Ryu anchoring their rotation. In November they signed Dan Haren to a one-year deal with a vesting option for 2015. Then there’s Josh Beckett, who’s expected to be ready by spring training after thoracic outlet surgery, and Chad Billingsley, who could come back from Tommy John surgery in May.

Righthander Zach Lee should open in Triple-A but could make his major league debut at some point in 2014. Righthander Ross Stripling, who made 16 starts in Double-A last year, is another option to contribute next season. Lefthander Julio Urias has the highest ceiling of any Dodgers pitching prospect, but he won’t be a factor in 2014.

The Dodgers have a strong rotation, but Kershaw becomes a free agent after next season. What makes the Dodgers’ potential pursuit of Tanaka fascinating is that his agent, Casey Close, also represents Kershaw. If Close signs Tanaka with the Dodgers, he’s potentially jeopardizing Kershaw’s market. But even if Tanaka ends up in with the Dodgers, that shouldn’t stop other teams from lining up to bid on the best pitcher on the planet.

Do the Dodgers have the money to re-sign Kershaw and add Tanaka? It’s hard to put a ceiling on where the Dodgers might go with their payroll, but with a surplus of outfielders and No. 1 prospect Joc Pederson arguably ready to step in immediately, trading Matt Kemp ($21 million in 2014) or Andre Ethier ($15.5 million) would help take care of that and potentially fetch quality young talent in return.

That might not even matter, as the Dodgers seem to have so much money to spend and aren’t slowing down. They gave $28 million to Cuban infielder Alexander Guerrero, who wasn’t even a consensus everyday player to international scouts. They added Haren and re-signed Juan Uribe, Brian Wilson and J.P. Howell to contracts guaranteeing them at least $10 million each.

If the Dodgers are intent on adding a starter, Garza could be a fallback option, but Santana or Jimenez would require surrendering a first-round pick. They have the prospects to land David Price, but it would drain a top-heavy farm system.

Late in the year, the Dodgers sent senior decision-makers to Japan. If they truly want Tanaka, they’re one of the strongest bets to land him.

2. New York Yankees

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The Yankees desperately need pitching. Even as he enters his age-39 season, Hiroki Kuroda is still a frontline starter, but beyond him the red flags are whipping across the rest of the rotation.

CC Sabathia has lost nearly 3 mph off his fastball over the last two years and is coming off a year with a 4.78 ERA, the worst of his 13-year career. There’s Ivan Nova behind him, and perhaps Michael Pineda can return and be a mid-rotation starter, but he’s extremely risky. Maybe Manny Banuelos can help at some point, but the Yankees can’t count on much from him or anyone else in a farm system that’s thin on starting pitching.

The Yankees are reportedly trying to stay under the $189 million luxury tax, which they’re already pushing up against. Having Alex Rodriguez’s $25 million wiped away would give them more flexibility, which is why Tanaka probably won’t sign until after a decision on Rodriguez’s suspension is announced.

Even if somehow the Yankees get stuck paying Rodriguez his full contract for the 2014 season, why would they be in such awe of the luxury tax? Blow past your draft bonus pool and you lose future premium draft picks. Do that in the international market and you can’t sign anyone for more than $300,000 the next two years. There’s a real talent sacrifice there.

The only penalty for going over the luxury tax is money. The Yankees have plenty of that. What they don’t have is pitching, either in the majors or the minors. The Yankees have sent several of their top personnel to Japan to scout Tanaka, and if they think he’s a frontline starter, that could be an upgrade of four or five wins in a competitive American League East.

If that helps get them to the playoffs, it will be worth the tax money.

1. Seattle Mariners

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The Yankees and Dodgers get most of the ink when the public speculates about Tanaka, but the Mariners are the favorites to land him. That doesn’t mean they will sign him, but based on conversations with industry officials, Seattle’s resources and the makeup of the team, they are a strong fit.

The Mariners have money to spend. They have a new regional television contract that will pay them $2 billion over 17 years. The Mariners showed off their deep pockets earlier this offseason by signing Robinson Cano to a 10-year, $240 million contract, outbidding everyone by a wide margin.

Seattle owes around $47 million to Cano and Felix Hernandez next season, but beyond them, the team doesn’t have much on the books. There’s $6.5 million for Hisashi Iwakuma, $6 million for Corey Hart, then nobody guaranteed and projected to earn more than $3 million through arbitration. With only around $67 million in contracts before arbitration tied up, the Mariners have plenty of space to sign Tanaka.

The money is there and so is the need. Seattle’s desire to trade for David Price is no secret. They need to upgrade the team to contend in 2014 and take advantage of Hernandez and Cano while they’re still stars. And the current makeup of the team isn’t enough for them to be strong contenders in the AL West.

Tanaka would help change that. A starting rotation with Hernandez, Tanaka and Iwakuma (Tanaka’s former Rakuten teammate) would give them three frontline starters, with another potential premium starter in 21-year-old Taijuan Walker, though it may be too soon to count on him performing at that level next season. It would be one of baseball’s scariest rotations, with James Paxton and Erasmo Ramirez candidates to round out the final spot.

Pitching is also the easiest area for the Mariners to upgrade. They’re set at second, third and shortstop with Cano, Kyle Seager and Brad Miller. Mike Zunino will step in at catcher, while they traded for Logan Morrison and signed Hart this offseason, presumably to shore up one of the two corner outfield spots and spend time at either DH or first base. The position players on the free agent market—especially in the outfield—are all rather unappealing. Nelson Cruz is the best one, but he’ll probably get overpaid (perhaps by Seattle). There isn’t much else.

Going the trade route would better way to help the offense. Perhaps sending a young pitcher such as Paxton to the Blue Jays in a deal for Colby Rasmus, a free agent after next season. With Oscar Taveras ready and the Cardinals’ addition of Peter Bourjos, Jon Jay could be another option. Brett Gardner and other names have popped up as trade candidates among industry discussions.

Other teams have the need for Tanaka and the finances to make it happen. But no team blends it all quite as strongly as the Mariners.