Masahiro Tanaka has become the story of baseball’s off-season. The 25-year-old Japanese ace has until January 24th to sign with a MLB team or else he’ll return to Japan. Tanaka signing with a MLB team is forgone conclusion and make no mistake about it; he’s about to cash in. Many conservative estimates peg a six-year, $120 million contract (plus a $20 million posting fee to Tanaka’s old team, the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles). Since Tanaka is essentially Japan’s first ‘free agent’, he’ll likely receive more years and a higher annual value. In the past, MLB teams submitted bids to the posted player’s Japanese team. The highest bidder received the rights to negotiate a contract with the posted player. That model has been replaced with essentially a ‘free market’ system where all 30 MLB teams could negotiate with Tanaka and pay the fee to his former club. Many teams, including the Yankees, have built their off-seasons around Tanaka. Needless to say, Tanaka has all of the leverage under this new system.
Shelling out a nine figure contract for a player who has never thrown a pitch in the MLB is very risky. Hell, shelling out nine figures for any player is risky. So what exactly is the winning bidder going to get in Tanaka? Here’s a summary of the videos I’ve watched and scouting reports that I’ve read…
- Pure ‘Stuff’: Alike most Japanese pitchers, Tanaka boasts a very diverse pitch arsenal. Tanaka throws six(!) pitches which include a two-seamer, four-seamer, cutter, slow curve, changeup, and splitter. Tanaka’s fastball sits in the low-to-mid 90s and tops out around 96 MPH. Tanaka does not have a pure ‘out’ pitch and tends to pitch to contact. Tanaka’s splitter is graded as his only above average pitch. Tanaka throws his slider more often than his curveball, but does not hesitate to throw any pitch in any count. Tanaka’s pure stuff isn’t as good as Yu Darvish’s and he will have issues if he pitches to contact in MLB. Tanaka’s ability to set hitters up and make them chase pitches out of the zone will help him make up for a lack of top-end stuff.
- Competition: From what I’ve read, the talent in the Japanese Pacific League is equivalent to Triple A. Last season, there was a sudden power surge in the JPL. Wladimir Balentien set the single season home run record and pitchers’ ERAs increased from 3.03 to 3.57. Despite the power surge, Tanaka allowed just six home runs in 212 innings. Tanaka’s 1.27 ERA led the league. There’s no denying that Tanaka dominated JPL competition, even if it wasn’t MLB quality. Tanaka’s dominance, even at 25-years-old, cannot be understated.
- Workload: There are some stark differences between the JPL and MLB. JPL pitchers work every seven days over a 144-game schedule. MLB pitchers work every five days over a 162-game schedule. Tanaka has started 77 games over the last three seasons and pitched through 611 innings. That’s roughly eight innings per start. Even though he averaged one strikeout per inning, that’s a taxing workload for any pitcher. Jeff Passan of Yahoo! did an interesting write-up regarding Tanaka’s pitch counts, so check that out. Workload has to be a concern in the minds of MLB teams.
- Transitioning to MLB: Due to shorter rest periods between starts, many Japanese pitchers come to their first MLB spring training and work on their conditioning. I can’t speak to Tanaka’s conditioning, but he is much younger than many previous transitioning JPL starters. I wouldn’t expect conditioning to be a huge issue. Still, there’s no guarantee he has a seamless transition.
There’s no denying there’s risk associated with inking Tanaka. On pure talent alone, he probably won’t be as good as Darvish and his past workloads are an obvious concern. However, he dominated the JPL since he was 18-years-old and his JPL career is pretty comparable to Darvish’s. Plus, Tanaka offers MLB teams a rare opportunity to sign a potential ace prior to his ‘prime years’. In comparison, the remaining current MLB free agent pitchers are all at least 29-years-old and come with their own share of issues. Taking a chance on Tanaka can either make or break a front office. Even with all of the risks, he won’t have a shortage of suitors.