As Jason told us recently, MLB and NPB have agreed to a new posting system for Japanese players that includes a maximum negotiating rights fee of $20 million. In the event that multiple teams bid the maximum they'll all be entitled to talk to the player being posted making him a free agent for all intents and purposes. The new system seriously alters the dynamic in MLB teams' race to acquire Rakuten Golden Eagles ace righty Masahiro Tanaka, but does it increase or decrease the odds that he'll end up in pinstripes?
Jason also noted that the new system could mean Tanaka won't be posted at all. With three years of exclusive rights to him still in their back pocket, Rakuten might wait until 2015 or even 2016 before making Tanaka available, since they're now all but guaranteed the same $20 million fee no matter when they put him up for grabs. Let's assume, though, that the Golden Eagles decide to acquiesce to their star hurler's desire to test his mettle at baseball's highest level. The new agreement might make Tanaka less attractive to the Yankees than he once was.
One of the main roots of Tanaka's appeal from the get-go was that according to the current collective bargaining agreement, posting fees paid to Japanese teams don't count toward MLB's luxury tax threshold. Under the old rules the Yankees could have bid $60 million to speak with Tanaka - surpassing the $51.7 mil the Rangers paid for Yu Darvish's rights two years ago - without paying a dime of tax on that sum. Only the average annual value of the contract they signed him to would go toward their official payroll. Darvish signed for $56 million over six years with Texas, which is considerably less than what the top free agent pitchers on this year's market will get.
Things have changed. With posting fees capped, and with more than one team involved, a much higher percentage of Tanaka's total cost will be taxable by MLB rule. At some point you have to wonder if the Yankees will shift their focus to established MLB pitchers like Matt Garza and Ubaldo Jimenez with Tanaka's tax bill now probably exceeding theirs.
There isn't a lot to go on to predict just how high MLB teams will bid for Tanaka's services. He's just 25 years old, making him considerably younger than anyone else left on a poorly stocked pitching market and he's been flat out otherworldly in Japan. He's managed ERA's of 1.87 or better in each of the past three seasons, including 1.27 in 2013, with a svelte 0.94 WHIP to match. The last NPB free agent of his magnitude was Hideki Matsui, who signed with the Yankees for four years and $32 million - a contract that turned out to be an absolute steal.
Matsui came over eleven years ago, though, and we've seen prices skyrocket all around since then. If Tanaka's overall tag winds up in line with Darvish's that would mean he'll agree to a six-year deal worth roughly $88 million - an AAV of nearly $15 mil per season. That's the low end. In all reality, his cost is likely to climb well beyond that. Depending on how many teams are willing to cough up the posting fee, Tanaka could be looking at a guarantee of more than six years with a value well into nine figure territory.
Even with the system altered, Tanaka should be the Yankees' chief pitching target for the same reasons he should be everyone else's. With Garza or Jimenez, or worst case, Ervin Santana, the Yankees would be committing several years to a pitcher entering his early thirties. Tanaka won't even turn thirty until after the fifth year of the deal he signs. His upside far eclipses that of MLB arms still available, all of whom have considerable warts. Garza doesn't have an elite season on his resume, Jimenez has been wildly inconsistent, and Santana, with his past fly ball tendencies, would be an imperfect fit for Yankee Stadium at best.
For the Yankees' odds of landing Tanaka if they go after him, the impact the new rules will have is unclear. On the one hand there's no longer the risk of being out-dueled in a blind bidding process. On the other, they'll now need to compete with big spenders like the Dodgers and Angels out in the open. They'll also need to convince Tanaka and his people that the Bronx is the best place for him to play, win and grow his brand. With teams outside of New York now adhering to the dump truck full of cash method of bargaining, it's no given that the Yankees' pitch will come out on top.
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