Ever since the new ownership group took over, the Dodgers have turned their focus back to the sorely neglected international market, with great success. Yasiel Puig & Hyun-jin Ryu were huge pieces of the 2013 team, and we hope we can say the same about Alexander Guerrero next year and Julio Urias at some point after that. It makes all the sense in the world, really. With teams locking up young players to extensions more than ever and the new CBA tightening restrictions on how much teams can spend on imports like Puig (even though he barely beat the deadline for the new rules), rich teams have to find new ways to identify talent and spend money.
Which brings us to Masahiro Tanaka, the 24-year-old Japanese righty who will follow Ryu from last year and Yu Darvish from the previous winter as the Asian pitching import of choice. The Dodgers will have at least one opening in the rotation (we’ll cover that tomorrow) if not two, and had been connected to Tanaka back in September before Ned Colletti admitted that they’d scouted him again just last weekend, so it’s time to get to know him.
The 6’2″ Tanaka went 24-0 (!) with a 1.24 ERA for the Rakuten Eagles, and the fact that I’m even bothering to quote a win-loss record should tell you just how hilarious 24-0 is. He hasn’t lost since August… of 2012. In seven seasons, starting when he was 18, he has a 8.5 K/9 and a 1.9 BB/9, allowing just ten homers over the last two seasons with what appears to be an excellent splitter and a fastball that touches 95.
The scouting reports here have been pretty good, as you’d expect. Ben Badler thinks he’s better than Jose Abreu, who just signed for $68m with the White Sox (without the requirement of a posting fee, of course), and at least one scout compares him favorably to Darvish, though most seem to see him as a step below:
“He is better than Darvish because he is a strike thrower,’’ the scout said. “Overall, Darvish’s stuff might be a little bit better, but this guy knows how to pitch. He is like Kuroda, he has a lot of guts. He throws four pitches but when it gets to [stone]-cutting time, it’s fastball and splitter.’’
Another praised his arsenal, while a Japanese GM concurred:
“He has good velocity, command and a great demeanor,” said a major league scout whose team has been one of several watching Tanaka closely. “He has a great splitter, which would make a difference in the majors.”
The scout says Tanaka’s determination is what resonates with many.
“He can strike out batters when he needs to,” he stated. “He really knows how to bear down. His slider is his secondary pitcher. We project him as a No. 2 starter for most MLB clubs.”
The NPB team GM agrees that Tanaka’s split-finger pitch is what makes him special: “He can throw five pitches — splitter, fastball, slider, changeup, curve — with good command. But the splitter just disappears. That’s why batters can’t hit it.”
Here’s a highlight reel video, for your pleasure:
As you’d also expect, a ton of teams are interested aside from the Dodgers, including the Mets, Blue Jays, Rangers, Angels, Twins, Yankees, Red Sox, and certainly more, and so the cost here is anyone’s guess. Darvish’s posting fee was $51.7m, but with the game flush in cash and fewer avenues to spend it, it’s not difficult to see this pushing $60m even if he’s not as good. (It’s important to note as well that the posting fee does not count towards luxury cap penalties, which encourages teams to spend freely.) Ryu got $25.7m, and Tanaka is surely seen as being better than him.
Also important to remember, the posting system may be in the midst of a change, reports Badler…
According to sources, one of the changes could include a system in which the posting fee would be capped, which in theory would give more money to the player rather than the Japanese team and allow MLB to count more money against the luxury tax. In turn, multiple teams could then be allowed to win the posting rights and compete for the player, but that system could also drive up costs for owners. Nobody seems certain what the future of the system will bring.
“We’re just operating under the idea that everything’s going to be the same way it was last year,” said one international director. “That’s the same as everyone else I talked to.”
Which makes it even more difficult to project a cost, because we’re not even sure what the system will be. My best guess is that the total outlay, between posting fee and contract, either comes close to or caps $100m, and that means only a few teams can really be involved. I imagine the Yankees will be in on Tanaka hard, simply because they have zero pitching right now — their 2014 rotation at the moment is CC Sabathia & Ivan Nova — and because the fact that the posting fee won’t hit their cap is huge to them, as they attempt to stay under $189m.
I’m sure the Dodgers will be on this too, as well they should. Imagine a rotation with Tanaka as the third starter, behind Clayton Kershaw & Zack Greinke and ahead of Ryu? It’s almost unfair, though obviously locking up Kershaw takes priority this winter, and it should be remembered that Tanaka could easily be more Kei Igawa than Ryu or Darvish. It remains to be seen if other teams have more interest, but because Tanaka is expected to be both good and pricy, you can bet they’ll be involved.