It's finally happened. After months of back-and-forth, Nippon baseball's Rakuten Golden Eagles gave Yankee fans an early gift this Christmas by announcing that their 25-year-old ace, Masahiro Tanaka, will indeed be allowed to pitch in the United States next season. With Rakuten's decision out of the way, the Yankees are one step closer to landing who most experts believe is the best pitcher on this year's market, but there are still a few roadblocks standing in the way - namely 29 other MLB teams who could have some interest also.
Reports of the Yankees' infatuation with Tanaka haven't exactly been scarce lately, and there's a good chance that's by design. By leaking the news that they plan to be "all in" for the Hyogo, Japan-born righty, who posted a 24-0 record and a 1.27 ERA in 2013, Yankee brass could be hoping to scare other teams off. It's well known that the Yankees are more than willing to blow up the market for players they want - they've already spent close to $300 million on free agents this winter, even despite letting Robinson Cano walk away. Rival owners may figure that if they're determined to make Tanaka theirs, why get involved just to drive up the market for future Japanese imports?
Unfortunately the Yankees aren't the only big spenders in baseball these days. If they want Tanaka as much as they say they do, they'll need to outbid the usual dollar-slinging suspects around the league. Here's a look at the teams who could pose the biggest threat:
The Red Sox probably aren't the neediest team when it comes to Tanaka. They're coming off a World Series title in a season where their starters posted a solid 3.84 ERA and a 1.29 WHIP. But Boston has virtually no money committed to their rotation beyond 2014, save for Clay Buchholz's $12 million guarantee. Thanks to John Lackey's 2011 Tommy John surgery and a bizarre clause in his contract, he owes the club a league minimum season in 2015. Even with Jon Lester up for free agency in a year, Boston has room to add a $100 million plus contract for Tanaka if they so desire. Like the Yankees, they also have multiple Japanese players in their clubhouse to potentially help make the transition to America a bit less daunting.
In past head-to-head bidding wars, the Yankees have fared extremely well against their neighbors to the northeast. In some cases - Carl Pavano, Jose Contreras - they probably wish they hadn't. Nevertheless, if it was just a Boston vs. New York thing, the Yankees odds at Tanaka would seem quite strong.
Like the Yankees, the Angels have been outspoken about their attraction to Tanaka. In the recent past, owner Arte Moreno hasn't been shy about throwing around the hundreds of millions he finds wedged between his couch cushions. For a team that was fifth worst in the AL in ERA last year and third worst in WHIP, Tanaka would be a welcome addition, nudging Joe Blanton or Jerome Williams out of the starting five. The Angels still owe Albert Pujols $212 million over the next eight years and odds are they'd like to actually win something while he's still around.
Given their less-than-covert interest, their big market status and their considerable need, the Angels might be the toughest competition out there for Tanaka.
L.A.'s other big spender has been interestingly coy about where they stand on Tanaka. GM Ned Colletti has talked about the team's desire to curb its free-spending ways. The Dodgers have around $85 million committed to six starting pitchers in 2014, depending on what Clayton Kershaw gets in arbitration. They also need to make Kershaw the highest paid pitcher in baseball if they want to keep him around for 2015 and beyond. On the surface, it doesn't seem like the time is right for them to make a strong push for a talented, but unproven international star.
Still, given what we've seen from Los Angeles the past two years, it's impossible to rule them out. Trading Matt Kemp would mean up to $20 million per year in savings, and pitcher-friendly Dodger Stadium, along with the offensively challenged NL West is an appealing combo for any hurler.
CSNChicago.com's Dave Kaplan tweeted Tuesday that a source told him the Cubs "will not be outbid" on Tanaka. The Cubs have money to spend and the man in charge, Theo Epstein, is the same who won the rights to Daisuke Matsuzaka in 2006 with a then-shocking bid of $51.1 million.
Kaplan's source also told him that convincing Tanaka to choose Chicago over New York or Los Angeles would be a tough sell even for more money. The windy city is a major world class metropolis, but it's not on a coast, and marketing opportunities aren't quite what they'd be on Madison Avenue or in Hollywood. The Cubs would also need to make Tanaka believe that they can win fairly soon and that, too, might be a challenge.
The D-Backs are another organization that's been vocal about its desire for Tanaka. Arizona's pitching could certainly use a boost after finishing in the lower half of the NL in ERA and WHIP last season. In selling themselves, though, they'll have a much tougher task than even the Cubs. Is Tanaka really looking to cross a 5,000 mile wide ocean to pitch in a mid-sized media market in the middle of the desert?
Historically, the Mariners may be the most successful MLB team when it comes to bringing in Japanese talent. From Ichiro and Kaz Sasaki in the early 2000's to Kenji Johjima and Hisashi Iwakuma in more recent years, they've made the best of opportunities to pluck players from the Far East. After spending $240 million on Robinson Cano they seem to be in win-now mode, and signing Tanaka, as opposed to trading for David Price, would allow them to hold on to their high-value prospects like James Paxton, Mike Zunino and Tijuan Walker.
Would the Yankees really allow themselves to be outbid by the Mariners again?