The Masahiro Tanaka sweepstakes

January 23rd, 2014

Come one, come all – and welcome to the 2014 Masahiro Tanaka Sweepstakes. For the price of roughly $120 million, give or take, your baseball team can have its very own Tanaka.

I know what most of you are thinking: What/who in the name of Zeus is Masahiro Tanaka? Let me explain.

Masahiro Tanaka is a 25-year-old, right-handed starting pitcher who absolutely stunned hitters in Japan’s Pacific League while pitching for the Rakuten Golden Eagles in 2013. But to say that Tanaka simply “stunned” hitters would be an understatement at best.

Here’s what his stat line looked like for the 2013 season in Japan: 24-0 record, 1.27 ERA over 28 starts, eight of which were complete games. Tanaka also struck out 183 batters last season, compared to walking just 32. That’s a ratio of nearly 6:1, something that is not exactly commonplace.

Tanaka has been putting up stud numbers in Japan since he was just 18 years old, but his most recent season left Major League Baseball teams yearning for his services. Thus, the bidding process began.

A multitude of MLB teams are said to be in negotiations with Tanaka, who will likely go to the highest bidder. These teams include the Yankees, Dodgers, Angels, Cubs, White Sox and Diamondbacks.

Numerous conflicting reports and rumors have flown around recently in regard to where Tanaka will sign or, at the very least, where he’s leaning towards signing.

Many MLB executives seem to believe that the Cubs, who were once a dark horse candidate, may now be the favorites and are prepared to make a huge splash in free agency by signing Tanaka. Under the leadership of GM Theo Epstein, who constructed the Red Sox’ World Series winning teams in 2004 and 2007, the Cubs seem prepared to officially make a break from their cursed past and take a step towards the future with Tanaka.

To no one’s surprise, the Yankees are also seen as possible favorites for Tanaka’s services. The Yankees, who severely lack starting pitching, seem to have scrapped their plan to keep their payroll under $189 million this season and “there is a feeling in some circles the Yankees will not be outbid,” according to the New York Times.

The Dodgers, who seem to be playing with Monopoly money at this point, are willing to spend big bucks on Tanaka, but the question is: how much? They already have the best pitcher on Earth, Clayton Kershaw, and a steady rotation behind him, led by Zack Greinke. Are they really willing to shell out another $100-plus million contract for a position that isn’t exactly of need?

The Angels, White Sox and Diamondbacks all still remain in the running, as do the Mariners, though they’re less likely to spend another monstrous contract after signing Robinson Cano away from the Yankees for $240 million over the next 10 years.

Regardless of who ends up signing the prized Japanese pitcher, one thing remains uncertain: How will Tanaka actually fare against MLB hitters?

It’s no secret that there is a noticeable difference between the competition in Japan and MLB competition. But we’ve seen star pitchers make the cross-world leap from Japan to MLB before and have success. For example, Yu Darvish of the Texas Rangers is arguably the best starting pitcher in the American League right now after striking out an absurd number of batters last season – 277 to be exact. Hiroki Kuroda of the Yankees has also been one of the most reliable pitchers in baseball since coming to MLB in 2008 at age 33.

But for every Darvish or Kuroda, there’s a Kei Igawa or Daisuke Matsuzaka. Igawa allowed seven runs and eight hits in his first MLB start with the Yankees in 2007, and that’s basically how the rest of his career went. Matsuzaka looked like a gem at first glance, finishing fourth in AL Cy Young voting in 2008 before being bounced around the minor leagues and even dragging himself to make three starts for the Mets in 2013.

So one thing remains certain: There is no certainty with Tanaka. No one knows where he will sign, how much he will sign for, or whether he will have any real success in MLB.

But any baseball mind knows that pitching wins games, and because of that, teams will always be desperate for pitching, even if it means throwing a six-year, $120 million contract at a Japanese pitcher who has never pitched on American soil.