Masahiro Tanaka became every GM’s unopened present when the Rakuten Golden Eagles posted him. Will the Braves open their box and if they do will they find Tanaka or a lump of coal?
Who Is Tanaka?
By now everyone knows about Masahiro Tanaka the latest Japanese superstar to become available to MLB teams. For those who haven ‘t drowned in detail yet he’s a brief summary. In 2013 the 25 year old right hander from Tami, Hyog Japan was 24 – 0 with an ERA of 1.27 and a WHIP of 0.943 in 212 innings, striking out 183 and walking 32. And it wasn’t just this year. Using data from Baseball-Reference.com I went back to his first year (2007) and rounded up his numbers. I also calculated his ERA+ based on league numbers to get a feel of where he stood among his peers.
I know the JPL isn’t the same level of competition as MLB provides so I thought a comparison with the current big name Japanese import Yu Darvish in the years they both pitched in that league might provide more insight.
Based on this and scouting reports quoted in stories to numerous to cite, Tanaka isn’t quite on the same level as Darvish but make no mistake, this guy is good; really good. As a result there’s a media scramble to break out their crystal ball and decide where he will end up.
The posting rules between the Japanese leagues and MLB changed this year. When Darvish posted teams bid for the right to be the only team to negotiate with him. The Rangers won the right at the cost of $51M. They signed Darvish for the bargain basement price of six years @ $56M. This year the posting fee is a maximum of $20M and only the team he signs with must pay so it’s expected that almost every team will take a shot. Reports suggest that it will take in the neighborhood of five years and $100M to sign him and that does narrow the field a bit. The usual suspects are of course on the list and right now that list looks like this.
- Yankees (of course)
- Red Sox (sure)
- Dodgers (okay but why?)
- Cubs (well???)
- Diamondbacks (okay)
- Angels (they can afford him too?)
- Rangers (they can afford him too?)
- Mariners (He’s Japanese so they have to be in it don;t they?)
Without diving into the details some of these make no sense at all while others can be said to be locks. when I heard the news I considered that the Braves might join the fray and this morning in his blog (insider subscription required) , Jim Bowden agreed suggesting that along with the Yankees, Angels, Rangers and Dodgers, the Braves had a shot at being his landing spot.
The Braves are a long shot here but also need him most. They are in desperate need of an elite starter, and a surprise bid might make sense, especially considering the new stadium revenues that are expected in the years to come. . . Tanaka is needed here if they want a chance to defend their NL East title with the improved Nationals breathing down their necks.
I agree he’s a nice fit and meets the requirement of not giving up a top ten prospect or two but, will the Braves bid and if they do will he listen? I think they will certainly bid but I’m not sure he’ll listen.
A Deaf Ear?
When citing reasons Tanaka might land with the Rangers one of the first things mentioned is Darvish and his successful seasons as a Ranger with a broader view the same could be said for others teams where Japanese pitchers have had success; Red Sox (Daisuke Matsuzaka,Koji Uehara. Junichi Tazawa ), Dodgers, (Hideo Nomo), Mariners (Hisashi Iwakuma and a Japanese owner) and probably more that I’ve missed. The Braves don’t have anyone to give them such a reference and the one they could get might not be positive. I’m talking of course about Kenshin Kawakami.
Kawakami came over as the Braves first foray into the Japanese market that I can recall. At 34 years old there were mixed scouting reports on him at the time. Some suggested he would be a solid back of the rotation starter and other that it was a surprise he was signed at all. His first year in Atlanta seemed to support the first assessment. While his record was 7-12 he posted an ERA of 3.86 (league average that year was 4.19) and his runs scored an average of three runs every nine innings he was actually in the game tied for last that year with Barry Zito. Fangraphs has him at a 1.5 WAR pitcher and BBR shows him at a 2 WAR, a pretty typical fifth starter. The next season wasn’t as good and trading him seemed the obvious thing to do but no one wanted to take his salary, A Japanese team made an offer but he refused to go back saying he wanted to prove he could pitch here. The Braves could have released him or traded him and swallowed his salary as they would end up paying it anyway. Instead he spent the whole season in the minors even being moved to rookie ball at one point. Kawakami said nothing but that had to be hard to take and seen as a lack of respect for a veteran player. Regardless of who you think was right in this whole event, I doubt KK would give the Braves a good reference. Mark Bowman put it this way
There’s no doubt that Kawakami’s three-year, $23 million deal falls into the “bad contract” category. But it’s an even worse contract when you look at the fact that the decision to send him to the Minors could adversely affect the opportunity for the Braves to get other players from Japan in the future.
This might sound odd. But multiple Major League sources not affiliated with the Braves, have said that others in Japan would view such a demotion as reason for their players not to affiliate themselves with an organization that has sent somebody like Kawakami to the Minors.
If personal references or national pride have the effect Bowman was told about the Braves apparently don’t have a chance. So, Are the Braves in the Tanaka sweepstakes or not? I think they have to be in. It costs nothing to join the group or bidders and even if they are unsuccessful the message to fans is that they tried.
What Would They Offer?
Looking back over the big name postings doesn’t help. They had one choice only; sign or wait a year. Tanaka will choose the teams he wants to negotiate with. His agent is Casey Close who according to MLB Trade Rumors agency database also represents Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke of the Dodgers as well as our our own Freddie Freeman, Chris Johnson and Jason Heyward and the Yankees Derek Jeter. So he knows well three of the teams involved and there’s no reason to believe there’s a favorite landing spot for his players. When it comes to Tanaka’s decision process we have no insight into how he may be leaning except for his well choreographed public statements. The most widely know franchises – Yankees, Dodgers, Red Sox – have the advantage of mystique but he’s just 25 and in his lifetime every team has been available to him so I doubt mystique is a huge factor. This is going to be about how he sees himself and what his personal goals are so there are some things I believe we can take as a given.
- He wants to play on the biggest stage and prove he’s one of the best.
- He’s not so much a hired gun as a strategic investor. Money is important but not as important as being in the right place to attain his goals.
- He will seek out a team that both needs and respects him; one he feels comfortable with after speaking with their leadership.
The obvious fit is the Yankees who along with the money not to worry about the luxury tax this year have no doubt have enlisted the help of Ichiro Suzuki and Hideki Matsui in persuading Tanaka a trip to New York is in his best interests. That and the Yankee aura might well make this whole discussion moot. For the Braves to over come that and past faux pas in etiquette will take a masterful sales pitch and an over the top contract. How over the top? The published swags are saying five years at $100M so extra years are needed and while he isn’t Darvish. C.C. Sabathia or Justin Verlander, today’s slim pitching market means he will get paid very well. A contract in the neighborhood of seven years $135M along with a signing bonus of $5M could persuade him to forget past indiscretions and have breakfast at the Waffle House regularly next season. Too big? If the current speculation of five years and $100 is correct it might in fact be too small. According to MLBTR pitchers with $100M plus contracts are:
- C.C. Sabathia, Yankees (2008) seven years, $161MM free agent
- Zack Greinke, Dodgers (2012) six years, $147MM
- Cole Hamels, Phillies, July 2012: six years, $144MM.
- Justin Verlander, Tigers, March 2013: five years, $140MM.
- Felix Hernandez, Mariners, February 2013: five years, $135.5MM.
- Barry Zito, Giants, December 2006: seven years, $126MM.
- Johan Santana, Mets, February 2008: five years, $124.25MM.
- Mike Hampton, Rockies, December 2000: eight years, $121MM.
- Cliff Lee, Phillies, December 2010: five years, $120MM.
- Matt Cain, Giants, April, 2012: five years, $112.5MM.
So Tanaka’s contract does break new ground but it is the first of its kind so that’s sort of a given.
That’s A Wrap
A long contract like that is a risk and not one the Braves have traditionally been willing to take on an unproven player. Tanaka however isn’t exactly unproven and given the fact that they haven’t found another way of landing a top of the rotation arm it may be one they decide to take. If I was betting I’d put money on the Yankees. When I look at the rest of the field I find more reasons why not than why they would. It would take a bold move from Terry McGuirk and an investment from Liberty Media to make it happen. As a marketing took for the new stadium and links with their other holdings they may consider it. But I’m not holding my breath. What’s your take?