Let Baseball’s Masahiro Tanaka Sweepstakes Begin


On Monday night, Major League Baseball and Nippon Professional Baseball officially agreed to a new posting system for NPB players transferring into MLB. The hurriedly patched together deal will likely set the stateside Masahiro Tanaka sweepstakes in motion, so long as his NPB team, the Rakuten Golden Eagles, decide to post him. The most significant change to the process:

If an NPB Club wishes to make one of its players available to Major League Clubs, the NPB shall notify the Office of the Commissioner of the NPB player’s potential availability and the “release fee” that a Major League Club must pay to the NPB Club in order to secure the NPB player’s release. The NPB Club may not set the release fee at an amount higher than $20 million and the fee cannot be changed once it has been set by the NPB Club.

Under the previous system the $20 million posting limit didn’t exist, occasionally forcing MLB teams to bid $50-plus million – as the Red Sox and Rangers did with Daisuke Matsuzaka and Yu Darvish, respectively — for exclusive negotiating rights with premier NPB talent.

While the overall impact of the system’s changes will begin to unfold this offseason, it appears to be a clear win for MLB teams and, more so, elite NPB players. Major league teams won’t have to blind-bid against each other and pay huge rights fees to NPB teams when talent poaching; meanwhile, transferring players will see a large portion of the saved posting fee dough in their contracts, especially considering they will be able to negotiate with any team willing to meet the posting fee.

The only party hurt by the new agreement – though they for some reason agreed to the three-year deal – are NPB organizations/owners. The Rakuten Eagles and their owner Hiroshi Mikitani will be the first to feel the effects of the new system, as they employ seven-year NPB veteran and latest Japanese pitching sensation Masahiro Tanaka. Tanaka’s posting fee was expected to break the record-setting $51.7 million mark the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters received in 2012 from the Rangers (for Yu Darvish) had the old system remained in place. Despite missing out on potentially $40-plus million, Mikitani will be okay.

While the Eagles aren’t obligated to post Tanaka this offseason, it appears they will allow him to pursue his major-league dreams. Tanaka becomes an NPB free agent after the 2014 season and an international free agent after the 2015 season. Were the Eagles to hold onto Tanaka for next season against his wishes, they’d risk getting no compensation at all for their ace. Not to mention, Rakuten had a gentleman’s agreement with Tanaka that they would post the right hander after the 2013 season if he contributed positively to the team. Tanaka responded with 212 innings, a 1.27 ERA, and a sparkling 24-0 record for the Japan Series champion Eagles.

How good is Tanaka?

Based on scouting reports, 25-year-old Masahiro Tanaka has well-above average pure stuff. His four-seam fastball sits in the mid-90s, and reached 97 miles-per-hour on the 108th pitch of the game in the linked scouting report. He has a two-seam fastball that sits between 88 and 93. Tanaka also possesses an upper-80s splitter, an 82 to 85-mph slider, and a show-me mid-70s curveball.

While the fastball/slider combo is good, it’s likely Tanaka’s world-class splitter that has major-league teams salivating about potentially penciling him in every fifth day. Thanks to the wonders of YouTube, you can see plenty of helpless Cuban hitters swinging over Tanaka’s splitter in the World Baseball Classic footage below:

While the stuff looks filthy, how has Tanaka’s performance stacked up against other high-profile NPB-to-MLB starting pitchers? The following table compares Tanaka’s statistics with recent transfers Yu Darvish, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Hiroki Kuroda, Hisashi Iwakuma, and Kei Igawa. I’ve included each player’s RA/9, strikeout percentage, walk percentage, and home run percentage in their three NPB seasons prior to coming to MLB. I’ve also included the NPB league-average RA/9 over those three years to show the ever-changing run scoring environment in Japan.

Player Avg Inn RA/9 K% BB% HR% LgAvg R/G
Tanaka 203.8 1.69 24.9 3 .8 3.50
Darvish 205.3 1.84 27.8 5.4 .8 3.95
Matsuzaka 182.4 2.68 25.2 5.7 1.5 4.52
Kuroda 193.9 3.14 18.5 4.5 2.1 4.21
Iwakuma 163 3.02 18.2 4.9 1.6 3.95
Igawa 193.9 4.07 23.3 6.7 2.8 4.40

Source: Baseball-Reference

Tanaka rates favorable with this group of  imports, even after considering that he was a major beneficiary of NPB’s 2011-2012 Deadball Era. Tanaka has displayed the best strikeout-to-walk ratios of the bunch, and he’s allowed home runs at a lower rate than everyone besides Darvish.

You can further adjust these numbers for league context (and park factors), which I’ve made no detailed attempt to do, but it’s safe to say that Tanaka would remain comparable with Darvish and Matsuzaka, the two most expensive Japanese imports, after any adjustments were made.

NPB pitchers have had mixed success when making the transition to the major leagues. Darvish and Iwakuma finished second and third in the AL Cy Young in 2013, both in their second MLB seasons. (Darvish with the Rangers and Iwakuma with Seattle.) Hiroki Kuroda was the Yankees’ best pitcher last season and likely would have garnered Cy Young support if not for his 11-13 record, and he’s posted a 118 ERA+ in six MLB seasons.

Daisuke Matsuzaka has generally been regarded as a bust, especially considering the Red Sox invested more than $100 million — posting fee and contract included — for his services in 2007. It all fell apart after the 2008 season for Matsuzaka, but he provided the Red Sox with 9.4 rWAR in his first two seasons and was part of a World Series winning rotation. It wasn’t a total waste of resources.

The Yankees also made a play for Dice-K, but they were blown out of the water by Boston’s over-the-top bid. Perhaps trying to one-up the Red Sox and still in need of a starter, the Yankees followed by signing Kei Igawa to a five-year, $20 million deal (plus $26 million in posting fees) in that same 2006-’07 offseason. Igawa gave the Yanks 71 2/3s innings and a 6.66 ERA at the major-league level and then toiled in Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes Barre for the rest of his contract.

The competition-level in the NPB generally rates somewhere between Triple-A and the majors, but it’s notoriously difficult to project performance for NPB players transferring to the majors, both due to the relatively insignificant number of players that make the jump and the player’s unknown adaptability to a new country and style of play. You can try, certainly, but any Tanaka projection is going to have much higher error-bars than one for, say, Matt Garza.

The good news for Tanaka is that, performance-wise, he rates well when compared with the likes of Darvish and Kuroda and Iwakuma, guys that have had a lot of recent success in the majors. The scouts generally rave about his stuff. And, if he’s ultimately posted, he’ll enter MLB during a time when cash is flowing as freely as ever.

Where will Tanaka sign, and how much will he make?

With the posting free dropped to $20 million, almost any team, even the smallest market clubs, could at least afford to get involved in the Tanaka sweepstakes. Just like MLB free agency, though, they’ll be priced out by the large-market teams looking to add starting pitching once the contract negotiations begin. While it might be easier counting off which teams won’t be in on Tanaka, let’s run down a few teams that are likely to be major players.

New York Yankees – Were the Yankees not dealing with self-imposed payroll restraints in an effort to get under the luxury tax threshold, they might be the favorites to land Tanaka. With a gradually declining C.C. Sabathia at the top of the rotation and plenty of question marks at the back-end, the Yankees are in desperate need of starting rotation help to compete in a tough AL East. The sting from the Kei Igawa debacle probably hasn’t totally dissipated yet, but Kuroda’s performance has to help.

Boston Red Sox – Like the Yankees, the Red Sox are perpetual contenders in these types of bidding wars. While their rotation isn’t in bad shape, Clay Buchholz is a constant injury concern, John Lackey is expected to regress in 2014, and Jake Peavy and Felix Doubront are less than reliable fourth and fifth starters. A Koji Uehara-like splitter would certainly look nice in the Boston rotation.

Texas Rangers – The Rangers would be able to slot Tanaka behind former Japanese transport Yu Darvish in the rotation; there has to be some kind of Japanese marketability factor for boasting the nation’s two best starting pitchers in the same rotation. They have boatloads of cash and incentive to improve.

Chicago Cubs – Cubs GM Jed Hoyer has confirmed that Chicago will be “part of the process” with Tanaka and president Theo Epstein told a group of season-ticket holders that he wished there was a free agency for young players. Tanaka is 25 and while the Cubs aren’t ready to compete yet, he could still be a frontline starter when they are.

Los Angeles Dodgers – With recent international hits on Yasiel Puig and Hyun-jin Ryu and a payroll soaring over $200 million, the Dodgers have to be considered players for Tanaka. Slotting him in somewhere between Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke, and Ryu would only bolster LA’s already deep pitching staff.

Arizona Diamondbacks – Arizona has made it clear they are in search of a frontline starter this offseason, and Tanaka is apparently its No. 1 target. The Diamondbacks’ rotation features Patrick Corbin and Wade Miley at the top, but the addition of Tanaka would likely give them a new ace.

There are other obvious, deep-pocketed contenders like the Los Angeles Angels, Detroit Tigers, Baltimore Orioles, Seattle Mariners, San Francisco Giants, and Mystery Team.

Projecting Tanaka’s salary is difficult because previous top NPB transfers dealt with two issues that won’t plague Tanaka: exorbitant posting fees and only one team to deal with. Tanaka’s posting fee, as mentioned, will only be $20 million and he’ll be able to negotiate with any team willing to meet that price. That could make him essentially a free agent, with as many as 10 or 20 teams bidding for his services and driving up his contract significantly.

I’m going to make a few assumptions here: 1) MLB teams rate Tanaka similarly to Yu Darvish and Daisuke Matsuzaka (when they were posted) and 2) Tanaka will receive roughly 80 percent of the posting fee money saved by his new team. These assumptions are very likely wrong, but at least give us something to work with.

Putting these assumptions into my NPB-to-MLB contract projector spits out this: Tanaka contract projection — Six-year, $97.9 million contract, plus $20 million posting fee.

If I had to, I’d take the over on that contract. The fact that MLB is flush with cash from television contracts and general growth combined with the reduced posting fee will have a major impact on Tanaka’s potential windfall. The recent success of Japanese pitching transfers, specifically Yu Darvish, is icing on the cake. While it’ll be interesting to follow the oncoming rumor-mill surrounding Tanaka’s likely destination, the real drama will start next season when he makes his major-league debut.

Dustin Palmateer

Dustin Palmateer

Dustin Palmateer

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