Japanese pitcher Masahiro Tanaka has a busy few days in front of him. November 1 he will enjoy his 25th birthday; November 2 he will prepare to start an elimination game in the Japan Series hoping to lead the Rakuten Eagles past the Yomiuri Giants to win the country’s biggest baseball competition. But that’s just the beginning.
Turning a quarter-century old and gearing up for the biggest start of a young and promising career pale in comparison to what Tanaka will be facing after that series ends. Tanaka completed the regular season 24-0 for the Eagles with a 1.27 earned run average over 212 innings of work. In Major League Baseball, that would immediately crown you the Cy Young. He is expected to be one of the most coveted free agents this offseason after having declared his interest to play in the States.
His biggest suitors will be the common big spenders: the New York Yankees, the Boston Red Sox, the Chicago Cubs and the Los Angeles Dodgers. The Yankees are giving serious consideration to reentering the Japanese market after failing big time with their most recent Japanese free-agent signing, Kei Igawa, back in 2006. The Red Sox are one day removed from their third World Series title in the past ten seasons and have had great success with their coups from Japan in Junichi Tazawa and Koji Uehara, who were lights out in their bullpen this season, and in recent years with ace starter Daisuke Matsuzaka. Their success on the field combined with Tazawa and Uehara in tow could attract Tanaka to Boston. The Cubs stand a small chance as they aren’t likely to field a winning team around Tanaka and the Dodgers will likely back out of the bidding once they realize their pitching staff is already stacked.
This could easily come down to the Yankees and Red Sox, which is fitting for the two American League East rivals. The Texas Rangers were the last team to pull in a big-name Japanese ace when they signed Yu Darvish to a six-year contract worth $56 million in 2011. In his first two big league seasons, Darvish has become one of the best pitchers in the game. Tanaka is considered to be slightly below Darvish in terms of overall stuff, but some scouts argue his command make him the slightly better pitcher. Additionally, Tanaka has been given credit for throwing the best splitter in the world.
What will it take to get Tanaka? Before Darvish signed, it took the Rangers $52 million in a blind posting bid for the rights to negotiate a contract with Darvish, with the money going to the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters — Darvish’s Japanese club. That was two seasons ago, and every single season the costs go up in baseball. You can easily expect the posting bid for Tanaka to reach $60 million while a contract in similar range to Darvish’s will be expected too.
The Yankees are being forced to give serious consideration to obtaining the services of Tanaka regardless of their recent history of poor international scouting in the Asian market. Losing him to the Red Sox would likely come back to haunt them every single season Tanaka pitches in Boston. Tanaka has a busy few days ahead of him, but he should enjoy them. It won’t be long before he is in the middle of a tug-of-war battle between several Major League Baseball powerhouses.