Stars aligned for Tanaka to receive mega pay day
Revamped posting system helps market value increase for sought-after right-hander
Masahiro Tanaka finds himself in the perfect storm.
Never has a foreign player had the leverage Tanaka has now that the Rakuten Golden Eagles posted him for Major League teams to bid on.
Thanks to the revised agreement between the professional leagues in Japan and North America, Tanaka could have all 30 Major League teams bidding for him at the same time.
In the past, a Japanese team would post a player, interested Major League teams would bid for the right to negotiate with the player and the team whose bid was accepted would negotiate with the Japanese player to sign him. The deal the player received was in addition to the posting fee.
Two years ago, The Texas Rangers gave the Nippon Ham Fighters $51.7 million for the right to negotiate with Yu Darvish, who then agreed to a six-year, $56 million contract, breaking the record for a Japanese player that Boston set when it gave Seibu $51.1 million to negotiate with Daisuke Matsuzaka, who signed a six-year, $52 million deal.
Now, the maximum posting fee is $20 million and any team willing to meet the fee can negotiate with Tanaka. It wouldn't be surprising if Tanaka, 25, walked away with a $100 million deal.
Tanaka will also benefit from Major League teams now being limited on what they can spend on foreign amateurs, and a slotting system being used for signing bonuses in the First-Year Player Draft in addition to a major jump in national television revenue teams will receive in 2014.
Added up, the new system puts Japanese professional players in position to move ahead of the Cuban players in terms of signing power. Cuban first baseman Jose Abreu signed a six-year, $68 million deal in October with the Chicago White Sox, breaking the record for a foreign player signing his first Major League contract.
Don't expect an instant decision, however. The negotiating rights to Tanaka extend until 5 p.m. ET on Jan. 24. That means the decision to post Tanaka most likely will add to the slowly developing free-agent market for starting pitchers.
Teams aren't likely to make sizable bids on Ubaldo Jimenez, Bronson Arroyo, Ervin Santana or Matt Garza, among others, until they find out whether they can sign Tanaka. The agents for those pitchers will likely want to wait for Tanaka's situation to be decided, feeling they could have a pumped-up market for their client among teams that lose out on Tanaka.
What a difference 50 years makes.
In 1964, Masanori Murakami became the first Japanese player to appear in the big leagues. The left-hander was one of three Japanese prospects the Nankai Hawks sent to the United States to pitch in 1964 in the San Francisco Minor League system. Murakami was so impressive in the Minors that he was promoted in September. He then pitched for the Giants in 1965, returning to Japan when Nankai challenged the Giants' rights to keep him in the United States.
It wasn't until 1995 that the second Japanese player came to the big leagues, the Dodgers signing Hideo Nomo. There have been 49 players, including 36 pitchers of Japanese nationality who were born in Japan to appear in the big leagues since Nomo, according to baseballreference.com.
What adds to Tanaka's bargaining power is that the big spenders are ready to take a shot at signing him, led by a New York Yankees team that is adamant about erasing the memories of a rough 2013 season in which it didn't advance to the postseason for only the second time in 19 years.
Other teams mentioned in connection with Tanaka have included the Los Angeles Dodgers and Angels, Texas Rangers, Chicago Cubs, Boston Red Sox, Philadelphia Phillies, Arizona Diamondbacks, Seattle Mariners and San Francisco Giants.
Tanaka has also hired agent Casey Close, who prefers to stay below the radar -- as opposed to some of his peers -- which some consider his strength in being able to maximize deals for his clients without creating a contentious relationship between the player and team.
Close definitely has ties to the Dodgers. Excel Sports Management, the agency he is with, represents the 1-2 punch of the Dodgers' rotation -- Zack Greinke and Clayton Kershaw. The Dodgers not only have shown a willingness to spend money under their current ownership, but they also have had ties with Japan longer than any team in baseball, dating back to the days of late owner Walter O'Malley. O'Malley first took a Major League team to Japan to play exhibition games. Close also represents Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter.
The Mariners are the sleeper in the pursuit of Tanaka. They have made a statement of trying to become a factor in the American League West this offseason with the signing of second baseman Robinson Cano (10 years, $240 million) along with first baseman/outfielder Corey Hart, outfielder Franklin Gutierrez and utility player Willie Bloomquist.
Seattle, however, has not landed a starting pitcher to bolster a rotation anchored by Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma, a former teammate of Tanaka's on Rakuten who joined the Mariners two years ago. Iwakuma was an All-Star last season, and with a 14-6 record and 2.66 ERA, he finished third in the AL Cy Young Award voting.
The Mariners do have strong Japanese ties. They are owned by Japanese-based Nintendo of America, and there is a significant Japanese community in the Seattle area.
And they have been active in signing players from Japan, including Iwakuma, Ichiro Suzuki, Kazuhiro Sasaki, Kenji Johjima and Munenori Kawasaki. Ichiro was an All-Star in 10 of his 11 full seasons with Seattle. Sasaki was a two-time All-Star with 129 saves in four seasons with Seattle (2000-03).
Will Tanaka be the next Japanese import to land in Seattle?
By the time the sun sets on Jan. 24, the answer will be known.
Tracy Ringolsby is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.