The biggest free agent pitcher this off-season hasn’t suited up for a Major League team yet, but the bidding war for Japanese right-hander Masahiro Tanaka officially began Wednesday when he touched down in Los Angeles. Tanaka will reportedly meet with up to 12 teams this week while in America including the Yankees, Dodgers, Angels, Mariners, and Diamond Backs as General Managers and front office personnel make their pitch to the highly sought after prospect
The 25-year old Tanaka has been impressive in his young professional career, pitching seven seasons for the Rakuten Golden Eagles. Over those seven seasons, where he went 99-35, Tanaka has averaged 187 innings and 14 wins per year with a 2.30 ERA, a 1.12 WHIP and has recorded over 1,200 strikeouts. He has certainly proved to be a durable prospect and teams around baseball believe Tanaka would be a lock as a number two starter, but could certainly be the opening day starter for the right pitching staff.
Among the interested teams are the Chicago Cubs, who are looking for an ace to build their young organization around. Cubs GM Jed Hoyer confirmed shortly after the season ended that the team would be in the hunt to land Tanaka. In an interview with WGN’s Dave Kaplan, Hoyer said, “[Tanaka] is a guy we’ve scouted heavily, [and] we’ve done our due diligence. He’s been outstanding not only this year but for a really long time. He’ll help someone’s rotation if he comes over here, and obviously we’re going to be involved in the process.”
With the team building from the bottom up and acquiring a number of young players in their farm system, Tanaka could be a fixture in the starting lineup for years to come. He would almost certainly have a big impact on the team right from the start with the front three returning starters, Jeff Samardzija, Travis Wood and Edwin Jackson, posting a combined ERA of 4.14 in 2013. And with some believing the Cubs current ace Jeff Samardzija to have taken a step back in his development this past season, Tanaka could fit in well with the pitching prospects the Cubs expect to bring up in the next few years.
The real decision the Cubs have to make is not whether Tanaka is MLB ready, but instead if the team is willing to pay the large contract expected to come to the pitcher.
In order to talk with Tanaka the Cubs, and every other team in the race, have to pay his former ball club 20 million just for the negotiation rights. This number is small in comparison to the reported 52 million the Texas Rangers paid for the rights to negotiate with Yu Davish back in 2012. But unlike Darvish, who signed a six year 60 million dollar deal with Texas, Tanaka is estimated to fetch upwards of 100 million. Big contracts, such as the one Tanaka is seeking, have come to hurt the organization in the past, most notably the Alfonso Soriano deal which tied the Cubs up for 130 million over the past seven seasons. And quite possibly the least glaring of the problems for the Cubs is that they haven’t had the best luck with Japanese players in the past. The team signed Kosuke Fukudome back in 2008 to a four-year, 48 million dollar contract, but the left-handed hitter posted dismal offensive numbers in his time with the Cubs, which was costly to a team that had the best chance on paper as any Cubs team in recent memory. Last season, the Cubs brought in relief pitcher Kyuji Fujikawa in the hopes he could take over as the team closer, but Tommy John surgery sidelined the right-hander after only 12 appearances.
But if Theo and company are interested in building a championship team, a big time free-agent such as Tanaka could generate both winning numbers and interest with the fan base, which has grown impatient with Cubs rebuilding mentality in recent years. The team certainly has the money for Tanaka as they will enter the 2014 season with 189 million left on their payroll, which puts them in contention for a big time player.
It will ultimately be up to Tanaka to decide which team gives him the best opportunity to succeed. After landing in Los Angeles Wednesday, it was reported by Steve Dilbeck of the LA Times that the free-agent pitcher would undergo a physical that would be released to all his potential suitors. The Cubs, and every other team, will have until January 24th at 5 p.m to sign Tanaka to a contract or waste the opportunity to bring the young talent to America. There doesn’t seem to be a clear front runner yet with teams, including the Chicago White Sox, having already met with Tanaka Thursday afternoon. But if the Cubs are serious about negotiating a contract with the Japanese talent nicknamed “Ma-Kun”, he would be the biggest free-agent signing of Cubs owner Tom Ricketts tenure in Chicago and would ideally give the team great production for the next ten years.