Sizing up the competition for Masahiro Tanaka

(Koji Watanabe/Getty)
(Koji Watanabe/Getty)

It took a few weeks, but MLB and NPB finally ratified the new posting system agreement yesterday. Instead of the old auction-based system, Japanese players will essentially become free agents with a “release fee” that serves as a tax. The release fee is set by the player’s NPB team and can not exceed $20M. Whoever signs the player has to pay the release fee. Simple enough, right?

Now that the new posting system is in place, the Rakuten Golden Eagles can officially post right-hander Masahiro Tanaka. It’s unclear if that will actually happen at this point but there’s a chance we’ll get an answer this week. Rakuten president Yozo Tachibana said he will speak to Tanaka this week before determining the next step. Needless to say, the club came into the winter expecting to receive a lot more than $20M for the best pitcher in the country.

The Yankees were reportedly ready to make a big run at Tanaka before the new posting system threw a wrench into things, but the expectation is they will still push hard if he is made available. Pitchers of this caliber at this age (25) are not available for nothing but money all that often. New York won’t be the only team after Tanaka if he is posted though. The competition should be pretty fierce since every team can talk to him without having to pay the release fee. Here is a look at the Yankees’ primary competition for the righty.

Rakuten Golden Eagles
Like I said, there is no guarantee Tanaka will be posted. Sponichi (translated article) reports Rakuten will try to talk their ace into returning next year, mostly because they’re a championship-caliber team (they won the Japan Series a few weeks ago) and can make another revenue-generating title run with him in 2014 before posting him next winter. They would risk having an unhappy superstar but more importantly risk him getting hurt, which would lead to no release fee next winter and a missed opportunity. Tanaka won’t be available until the Golden Eagles say the magic words, and my hunch is that even though they were screwed over by the new posting system, they’ll make him available because the alternative is too risky.

Arizona Diamondbacks
According to Ken Rosenthal, Tanaka is the D’Backs top target as they look to add an ace. GM Kevin Towers scaled back a bit while speaking to Jack Magruder recently, saying if “for some reason he becomes posted, we’ll circle back.” When push comes to shove, Arizona doesn’t have the ability to compete in a big time bidding war. Tanaka is likely out of their price range.

Boston Red Sox
The Red Sox already have six starters and they reportedly don’t have a ton of payroll space to work with this winter, plus Alex Speier (subs. req’d) says they only view Tanaka as a number three starter at best. That could be a ruse, of course. We can’t rule them out completely, but Boston seems like an unlikely suitor for the right-hander.

Chicago Cubs
Bruce Levine says the Cubs will be in on Tanaka and they have the financial wherewithal to make a serious run at him. A young, high-end starter would be quite the addition to their rebuilding club. The Cubbies would have to sell Tanaka on the idea of joining a clear non-contender who hasn’t won anything in more than a century, which may not be easy if the money if their contract offer doesn’t blow everyone else’s out of the water.

(Junko Kimura/Getty)
(Junko Kimura/Getty)

Los Angeles Angels
After coming into the winter with minimal payroll space, GM Jerry Dipoto has cleared enough cash through trades (dumping Mark Trumbo, specifically) and non-tenders to make a run at a pricey starter. Dipoto told Jerry Crasnick the team will “remain patient and abide by the rules” until Tanaka is posted (meaning they won’t talk about him publicly), at which point they will have “a lot of conversation about it.” The Halos have some money to spend but they’ve taken a more disciplined approach to this offseason after spending big in recent years. Another huge signing may not be in the cards.

Los Angeles Dodgers
Surprisingly, the Dodgers appear to be lukewarm on Tanaka — Bill Shaikin says they are interested but not at any cost. Given their super-deep pockets and desire to add another starter, we can’t count them out. Not even close. Keep in mind that the team has a long history of bringing players over from Asia, most notably Hideo Nomo, Kaz Ishii, Takashi Saito, Hiroki Kuroda, and Hyun-Jin Ryu. The Dodgers have a ton of money, they’re in position to win a title as soon as 2014, there’s a big Japanese community in Los Angeles, and the travel back to Japan is as easy as it gets from an MLB city. There’s an obvious fit if the team wants to enter the fray.

Seattle Mariners
The Mariners didn’t give Robinson Cano a ten-year contract with the intention of doing nothing else this winter. They’re pursuing David Price but do not want to part with top prospect Taijuan Walker, so Tanaka is an obvious alternative. The team has plenty of ties to Japan, including their ownership group (Nintendo!), former players like Ichiro Suzuki and Kenji Johjima, and current players like Hisashi Iwakuma, who was Tanaka’s teammate with Rakuten from 2007-2011. Like Los Angeles, Seattle has a big Japanese community and travel back to Japan is relatively easy. After dropping all that money on Cano, we can’t rule the Mariners out.

Texas Rangers
T.R. Sullivan says the Rangers will reach out to Tanaka if he is posted, but they do not expect to sign him. There is no such thing as too much pitching, but their priority right now is adding another outfield bat, not another starter.

* * *

Plenty of contending (or wannabe contending teams) need a starter like Tanaka but a bunch simply can’t afford him at this point. The Orioles, Braves, Reds, Giants, Royals, Blue Jays, Indians, and Pirates fit into this group. The Tigers, Cardinals, and Nationals have not been connected to him at all this winter either. The Yankees have the ability to outspend everyone if they choose, but the competition for Tanaka is going to be stiff if he is posted. The Dodgers, Cubs, and Mariners stand out as the biggest threats.

2013 Winter Meetings Day Four Open Thread

(Thearon W. Henderson/Getty)
(Thearon W. Henderson/Getty)

The final day of the lamest Winter Meetings I can remember is upon us. The Rule 5 Draft starts the day — J.J. Cooper has a preview, including notes on several Yankees farmhands who figure to be selected — but the Yankees do not have an open 40-man roster, so they won’t be able to make a pick. Clubs and their executives tend to leave around midday Thursday, so don’t expect there to be many rumors or transactions in the afternoon. For shame.

Here are Monday’s, Tuesday’s, and Wednesday’s rumors. Late last night we learned the Yankees rejected a Brett Gardner-for-Brandon Phillips trade offer from the Reds, who are looking to unload their second baseman and the $50M left on his contract. We’re going to keep track of Thursday’s worthwhile rumors right here. All times are ET.

  • 9:26pm: The Yankees were involved in trade talks for Brett Anderson before he was dealt to the Rockies. [Susan Slusser]
  • 5:31pm: While talking to Johan Santana’s agent, Brian Cashman showed some interest in hard-throwing but not-always-strike-throwing reliever Henry Rodriguez. [David Waldstein]
  • 5:28pm: The Yankees made their offer to Infante after Robinson Cano agreed to sign with the Mariners and before the Winter Meetings, which basically means last weekend. [Olney]
  • 2:49pm: Apparently there was a three way trade being discussed involving Gardner, Justin Masterson, and Didi Gregorius. Gardner would have wound up with the Indians, Masterson with the Diamondbacks, and Gregorius with the Yankees. Huh. [Sweeny Murti]
  • 1:10pm: Mark Ellis is “on the radar” as an Infante alternative for the Yankees. I looked at him as a possible target yesterday. [Ken Rosenthal]
  • 12:20pm: The team’s offer to Infante is in the three-year, $24M range. He’s seeking four years and $40M. [Sherman]
  • 12:09pm: The Yankees have offered Omar Infante a three-year contract. He is still holding out for a fourth year. The Royals are in the mix as well. [Jon Heyman]
  • 9:00am: Future talks about Gardner and Phillips could be expanded to include other players, but the Yankees have essentially told teams they will only trade Gardner for a starting pitcher. They listened on Phillips out of due diligence. [C. Trent Rosecrans & Joel Sherman]
  • Masahiro Tanaka remains the team’s top pitching priority. The new posting system is expected to be ratified soon but it’ll probably be another week or so before we find out whether Tanaka will actually be posted. Maybe longer. [George King]
  • The Yankees are one of Joaquin Benoit’s likeliest destinations along with the Indians, Padres, Mariners, and Cubs. He’s seeking $7-10M annually across multiple years. Matt looked at Benoit as a free agent target earlier this week. [Jeff Passan & Buster Olney]
  • While talking to reporters yesterday, Brian Cashman said the pool of available of second baseman is “deeper” than it is at third. He also said he has not spoken to a bullpen candidate who demanded the closer’s job. [Chad Jennings]

Reminder: Your trade proposal sucks.

Yanks could pass on the top free agent pitchers now and look for better next winter

Is a Garza now worth a shot at a Kershaw later? (Getty)
Garza now or maybe a shot at Kershaw later? (Getty)

Six years ago, the Yankees took one of the biggest risks in franchise history. The Twins were shopping two-time Cy Young Award winner Johan Santana one year before free agency and he was a perfect fit for the Yankees, a team in need of a workhorse ace left-hander. There were offers and counteroffers, a bidding war between the Yankees and Red Sox, and weeks of rumors. It was exhausting, really.

Santana was a perfect fit for the Yankees … except that he wasn’t. Not only would they have had to trade away some of their top prospects to acquire him, but they’d also would have had to give him a nine-figure contract extension to keep him around. Johan was also showing some signs of decline, particularly in his spiking homerun rate and sudden decreased usage of his slider. There were definite red flags. It was a risky move but the type of move the Yankees usually make, except this time they didn’t. They passed on Santana and off he went to the Mets for a mostly forgettable four-player package.

The Yankees passed on Santana for two reasons. One, they wanted to keep their young pitching. Given the state of the franchise at the time, it was the right move. Two, there was a better option coming along the next offseason. CC Sabathia, another Cy Young winning workhorse left-hander, was due to become a free agent following the 2008 season, when New York could acquire him for nothing but money (and a draft pick). It was an incredibly risky move because there was no guarantee Sabathia would actually hit the open market, but the Yankees rolled the dice and a year later they got their man. They kept their young starters and got their ace lefty. Santana, meanwhile, gave the Mets one Cy Young caliber season before starting to break down. The plan couldn’t have worked out much better for the Yankees.

Fast forward to present day, and the Yankees are in a bit of a similar situation. No, they aren’t trying to trade for a Cy Young winning ace southpaw (that would be David Price), but they are in the market for pitching and there are some pricey options sitting out there for the taking, namely Ubaldo Jimenez, Matt Garza, and Ervin Santana. Those are the three best free agent starters available right now while Masahiro Tanaka sits in posting system limbo. And you know what? None of those three guys is a slam dunk, we gotta have him starter. Jimenez was awful as recently as the All-Star break, Garza has been hurt the last two years, and Santana was awful in 2012. The track records are as sketchy as they get for a high-priced starter.

Those are the top free agent pitchers available right now, with Hiroki Kuroda off the board and Tanaka not yet available. Now, courtesy of MLBTR, here is a sampling of the hurlers scheduled to hit the open market one year from now, during the 2014-2015 offseason (2015 season age in parenthesis):

Homer Bailey (29)
Clayton Kershaw (27)
Jon Lester (31)
Justin Masterson (30)
Max Scherzer (30)
James Shields (33)

Those are six pretty great pitchers, right? Just about all of them are reasonably young too. I’d rather have any of those six over Ubaldo or Garza or Santana, that’s for sure. Obviously those guys could sign extensions between now and next winter — Kershaw, Scherzer, and Lester seem most likely to ink an extension at this time — but there’s just so many of them that one or two figures to slip through the cracks and be available next offseason.

If Tanaka doesn’t get posted — I still think they should go all out to land him if he does indeed become available at some point — I think the Yankees would be better off repeating their Santana-Sabathia strategy. Rather than pay for an imperfect solution like Garza or Ubaldo or Santana right now, they could sign a stopgap starter (Bartolo?) for this year before going hard after one (or maybe even two) of those top guys next winter. They’ll want to have as much money available as possible if, say, Kershaw and Scherzer hit free agency next winter. Or Bailey and Masterson. Or Lester and Shields. You get the point. A stray Ubaldo could gum up the works.

Would this plan be risky? Absolutely. There’s a chance all of them will sign extensions before free agency and the Yankees will be left out in the pitching cold. Is it worth the risk? I think it is when there are six (not one or two) of these guys and the alternatives are Garza, Jimenez, and Santana. That’s easy for me to say when my neck isn’t on the line, obviously. It could be that the Santana-Sabathia situation was a one-time thing the Yankees are not willing to risk again, but because they took that risk once before and it worked out so wonderfully, we kinda have to assume it isn’t completely off the table in the future. If Tanaka is not posted, the Yankees’ best course of action maybe be signing a stopgap starter and focusing on those premium arms slated to hit the market next winter.

Despite posting system changes, Tanaka remains best pitching option for Yankees

(Adam Pretty/Getty)
(Adam Pretty/Getty)

At some point very soon, MLB and NPB are expected to finalize a new posting agreement allowing Japanese players to come across the pond prior to qualifying for international free agency. Reports indicate the maximum allowable bid will be $20M, and any team who bids the max will be allowed to negotiate with the player. It’s a really crummy deal for the Rakuten Golden Eagles, who were surely expecting $50M+ for ace right-hander Masahiro Tanaka this winter.

The new system essentially creates true free agency with a $20M tax. Only the team who signs the player has to pay the posting fee, so there’s really no reason for any team not to submit a max bid for a player like Tanaka. There’s always a chance he shows up to negotiations and says “You know, I’ve always wanted to pitch in Denver” or something like that. For small market teams who can’t afford a player like Tanaka, such as the Rays or Padres or Athletics, there is some value in simply throwing your hat in the ring and making things slightly more difficult for your rivals.

For the Yankees, the new system makes Tanaka less desirable from a financial standpoint. That goes for all big market teams, really. The posting fee does not count against the luxury tax, so New York could have submitted a huge bid, then signed Tanaka to a below market contract (which does count against the luxury tax) because they had exclusive negotiating rights. The setup was great even if the Yankees weren’t trying to get under the $189M luxury tax threshold. Now the posting fee will be relatively small and the contract much larger because the player will be on the open market.

As far as the luxury tax goes, the new system does hurt the Yankees. That said, Tanaka remains the best pitcher available this winter, at least in some ways. If you’re looking to maximize 2014 impact, guys like Hiroki Kuroda and Bartolo Colon and Matt Garza are probably better bets. That first year always seems to be something of an adjustment period for Japanese hurlers. Long-term, the just-turned-25-year-old Tanaka seems like a better investment than the 30-year-old Garza and the soon-to-be 30-year-old (and spectacularly inconsistent) Ubaldo Jimenez, assuming he’s as good as everyone says he is. Plus he won’t cost a draft pick (Garza won’t, Ubaldo will).

The Yankees were expected to make a very hard push for Tanaka before the posting system changes, so they obviously like him and think he can handle the transition into the AL East and a tiny home ballpark. The favorable contract and luxury tax system really made him a perfect fit. Does the new system change that? It doesn’t change Tanaka as a pitcher, it just means he’ll be more expensive if they go over the luxury tax threshold. The new system figures to actually lower the total cost — $70M posting fee plus $50M contract under the old system vs. $20M posting fee plus $80M contract under the new system, sound about right? — it just gives the majority of the money to the player rather than his former team in Japan.

The Dodgers, Cubs, Blue Jays, Rangers, Angels, and Mariners were expected to be in on Tanaka before the posting system changes and I assume they will remain serious bidders. I’m sure teams like the Orioles and Diamondbacks will submit max bids, but when push comes to shove, they don’t stand much of a chance when it comes to offering a competitive contract. Wooing Tanaka will not be easy for the Yankees even if they throw a ton of money at him. I think the Dodgers are a very real threat because, in addition to all their money, there’s a big Japanese community in Los Angeles and the travel back to Japan is way easier. Same goes for Seattle. If Tanaka is all about the money and will go to whichever team offers the most, the Yankees are in better shape to land him. They have every reason to overpay for guys right now.

Under the old posting system, Tanaka was a near perfect fit for New York. He was luxury tax friendly and, more importantly, they can really use a high-end 25-year-old starter. The plan to get under the luxury tax threshold was predicated on a young rotation built around Ivan Nova, Michael Pineda, and Manny Banuelos, but that hasn’t materialized for many reasons. Under the new posting system, Tanaka remains just as good a fit on the field but won’t come with the same luxury tax friendly cost. He is still the best available pitcher on the market and the Yankees should still make a very strong push to land him, it’ll just be much more difficult now.

Update: Jerry Crasnick reports Rakuten president Yozo Tachibana said the team may simply hold onto Tanaka rather than pawn him off for $20M. “We have an obligation to explain to our stakeholders whether it’s fair. There’s a possibility we won’t take the next step,” he said. They could hold onto him for a year and post him next year if the posting agreement changes again.

A-Rod, Tanaka, and even Cano handcuffing Yankees’ offseason

(Al Bello/Getty)
(Al Bello/Getty)

Last offseason, the Yankees reportedly took the rather unique path of creating a list of needs and going down the list in order, one by one. First was pitching, second was adding an outfielder, then third was filling out the margins of the roster. They didn’t waver from that strategy at all. It was weird because usually you’d expect a team to multi-task, not miss out on a player because he was further down on the list than something else.

This winter, it does not appear the Yankees are working that way. They aren’t handcuffing themselves like that. Instead, they’re being handcuffed by other factors around the game and in free agency, things outside of their control. That is much worse than sticking to list and going one by one, obviously. New York could have always changed that approach whenever they wanted. Their offseason plans are being held hostage at the moment. Other stuff is getting in the way of allowing them to set a hard budget number and proceed.

Alex Rodriguez‘s Appeal Hearing
Things got a little juicy yesterday when A-Rod stormed out of his appeal hearing claiming it was a “farce,” but as far as we know that doesn’t change anything about the timetable. The hearing will continue today without a day off either until it is completed or next Wednesday, whichever comes first. I assume they would reconvene the Monday following Thanksgiving, if need be. Hopefully it doesn’t come to that. Once the hearing is over, arbitrator Frederic Horowitz is expected to take three or four weeks to hand down his ruling.

Assuming things get wrapped up before Thanksgiving and Horowitz takes his four weeks, we’re looking at a ruling sometime right before Christmas, two weeks after the Winter Meetings. The Yankees have a lot of needs and not much money to spend, at least until A-Rod’s suspension is upheld and all or part of his 2014 salary (and luxury tax hit) is wiped off the books. They can’t count on that happening though. Nothing is final until Horowitz says so. As much as $33.5M is 2014 payroll space hangs in the balance here, enough to sign two premium free agents, but New York won’t know if that money is available to them until after the Winter Meetings, when most major dealings take place.

Masahiro Tanaka‘s Posting
According to Jon Morosi, MLB and NPB have resumed talking about a revising posting system this week after a proposal fell through last week. Apparently MLB felt NPB was taking too long to wrap things up, so the league decided to go after a sweeter deal. Can’t say I blame them, but that doesn’t exactly help the Yankees. It’s no secret they will go hard after Tanaka and why not? He’s supposed to be awesome and because the posting fee doesn’t count against the luxury tax, he’d fit well in their budget.

(Junko Kimura/Getty)
(Junko Kimura/Getty)

Brian Cashman has said he needs to add two starting pitchers this winter and Tanaka is presumably Plan A. If they can’t land him, the Yankees could to turn to Hiroki Kuroda, Matt Garza, or Ubaldo Jimenez. Capable pitchers who aren’t as luxury tax friendly. Needless to say, the longer the haggling between MLB and NPB drags on, the more it hurts the Yankees. Kuroda and Garza and whoever else won’t wait around forever and New York needs to take care of its pitching. There’s a chance, albeit a small one, that Tanaka won’t be posted at all this winter. Cashman & Co. want to know if that will be the case soon, not in late-December or January after the other top arms sign.

Robinson Cano‘s Contract
Unlike the A-Rod and Tanaka stuff, the Yankees actually have some control over Cano’s contract situation because they’re the high-bidder until another club steps to the plate. That fact that his representatives crawled to the Mets earlier this week is a pretty good indication his market isn’t all that robust at the moment. That could change in a heartbeat, however. I do think it’s only a matter of time before another big market team (Nationals?) gets involved.

“We’re not waiting around,” said team president Randy Levine to Andy McCullough earlier this week when asked about a timetable for a new contract with Cano. “We have about five or six free agents that we’re aggressively looking at. Some of our own, some outside guys. We’re not waiting for Robbie or anyone. As these guys come off the board, if we’re lucky enough to get some of them, that obviously limits the money we have for Cano.”

Saying you’re not going to wait around is one thing, but actually doing it is another. The Yankees aren’t stupid, they know their most likely (only?) chance at contention next season involves having Cano at second base and in the middle of the lineup. They also know attendance and ratings took a big hit in 2013 and losing a star caliber player like Robbie could lead to an even greater decline. On the other hand, you could argue this past season showed he isn’t the kind of player who drives fan interest and attendance and ratings and all that. He was the only big name, everyday player on the team, after all.

Cashman & Co. have a lot on their plate this winter. They’ve gotta rebuild half a rotation, half a bullpen, and a decent chunk of the lineup to get back to contention in 2014. They have to do all that while staying under the $189M luxury tax threshold, meaning bang for the buck is important. It was always important, don’t get me wrong, but in the past they could bid the extra million bucks and not think too much of it. The A-Rod and Tanaka situations are really tying their hands because so much money is at stake. Unless they’re willing to risk going over the luxury tax threshold, there’s nothing the team can do but sit and wait until that stuff is resolved, hoping the offseason doesn’t pass them by.

King: MLB and NPB are still “several weeks” from posting system agreement

Via George King: MLB and NPB are still negotiating changes to the posting system and remain “several weeks” away from reaching an agreement. We heard the two sides were discussing changes in September and finalizing an agreement last month, but apparently recent progress has been slow. There has been talk about giving the player some more input into the process while MLB wants to cut posting fees.

Meanwhile, Jeff Passan reiterates that the Yankees are “going to be bold” in their pursuit of Rakuten Golden Eagles right-hander Masahiro Tanaka. Re-signing Robinson Cano and landing Tanaka are considered priorities 1 and 1a, he says. The team’s scouts — the same ones who declared Yu Darvish unfit for New York — compared Tanaka’s temperament and makeup to Hideki Matsui‘s. The luxury tax-exempt posting fee is expected to climb north of $75M, but Tanaka can not be posted until MLB and NPB reach an agreement. Between this and the Alex Rodriguez ruling, it seems like everything on New York’s plate this winter is being delayed as long as possible. Hopefully the offseason doesn’t pass them by.

The Latest on Tanaka and the Posting System

For the first time since August 2012, Masahiro Tanaka took a loss on Saturday. The Rakuten Golden Eagles ace allowed four runs on 12 hits and one walk while striking out seven against the Yomiuri Giants in the biggest game of his career — it forced a Game Seven in the Japan Series. Tanaka threw 160 pitches in his fourth complete game in five postseason starts. Those workloads are fairly common in Japan, where they pitch once a week rather than once every five days. His 30-start unbeaten streak came to an end and is the longest in the professional baseball history (by six!).

Update: Tanaka came out of the bullpen and threw 15 pitches to get the save in Game Seven on Sunday. It’s considered an honor for the team’s best pitcher to record the final out of the series in Japan, which is why he was used on zero days’ rest.

The Golden Eagles are expected to post Tanaka after the postseason and the Yankees “are going to be serious players” for the right-hander, who turned 25 on Friday. Jeff Passan posted an update on Tanaka and the reportedly forthcoming revisions to the posting system, so let’s round it up:

  • With teams having few places to spend money, Tanaka is expected to be the most expensive international import in baseball history. Several executives said they expect the posting fee, which won’t count towards the luxury tax, the be in the $75-100M range. The $51.7M posting fee the Rangers paid for the right to negotiate with Yu Darvish is the current record.
  • Tanaka doesn’t have an agent right now. He’s been focused on the playoffs and isn’t sorting through candidates. The timetable for picking a representative is unclear but it’s been speculated he has an agreement with an agent already in place. Obviously he needs to get that figured out before being posted.
  • Progress regarding the posting system changes has been slow because MLB wants to figure out a way to keep down posting fees. Haggling will delay the agreement, which means Tanaka may not be posted anytime soon even though the postseason is a few days from ending.
  • One proposal suggested the winning team would not have to pay the full amount of their bid. Instead, they would find a point midway between the high bid and second highest bid and instead pay that. The Rangers outbid everyone by roughly $20M for Darvish and clubs want some protection in case something like that happens again.