The highest rated pitcher on the free agent market this offseason is now finally, officially, on the free agent market. Masahiro Tanaka -- coming off of a 24-0 season for the Rakuten Golden Eagles of the NPB -- was posted by his team (allowing him to come to MLB before qualifying for international free agency, regularly after playing nine years in Japan) and any franchise that is willing to pony up the maximum $20 million posting fee can attempt to negotiate a Major League contract with Tanaka and his agent, Casey Close. Bob Nightengale of the USA Today reported on Twitter that the he's been told by baseball officials that the bidding will start at "a minimum of $17 million a year" for the 25-year-old Japanese right-hander. The Seattle Mariners definitely still have some work to do with their roster if they plan on being competitive in 2014. While they have signed Robinson Cano and others, the rest of the AL West has been making improvements, too. And that starting pitcher that Jack Zduriencik said he was looking to add when the offseason began still has not been brought in.
The prospect of bringing in a young pitcher who could end up being top-of-the-rotation-caliber for the next several years could be huge. Pair the 25-year-old with him with 28-year-old Felix Hernandez (he turns 28 shortly after 2014 Opening Day) and 21-year-old Taijuan Walker and Seattle could potentially have one of the best pitching rotations in baseball for years to come. But even having added Cano, Corey Hart and Logan Morrison, Seattle still looks like a team in need of offense a team not likely to contend in the AL West in 2014. Why would Tanaka want to come to Seattle? And why wouldn't the Mariners invest elsewhere?
For one thing, the Mariners have a closer tie to and a longer history of success with Japanese Baseball and its players than any other franchise in MLB. Ichiro -- the most successful import of all, with 10 All-Star game appearances, 10 Gold Gloves and an MVP to his name -- heads the list, of course, but there is also Kenji Johjima, Kazahiro Sasaki, Munenori Kawasaki and current No. 2 starter Hisashi Iwakuma. To add to that, Iwakuma and Tanaka were teammates with Rakuten, pitching in the same rotation from 2007 through 2011 for the Golden Eagles. We don't know what kind of relationship the two had while they played together, but Iwakuma is the only former Japanese player currently on a big league roster that has that tie. The other tie for Seattle is the man who Tanaka chose to represent him, Casey Close.
Close, who was a 7th round draft pick by the Yankees out of the University of Michigan back in 1986, played for two years in the Mariners' organization before hanging up his spikes and venturing into the athlete representation world, enjoying his best pro season for the Calgary Cannons in 1989 by hitting .330/.401/.503 in 95 games. He represents (or represented) former M's Gil Meche, Casey Kotchman and Jamey Wright and his firm, Excel Sports Management represents Blake Beavan and one of Seattle's top prospects, D.J. Peterson. Excel currently reps four members of the Braves' and Royals' organizations and six from the New York Yankees, including Derek Jeter and Mark Teixeira -- Close's two highest profile (and highest paid) clients -- but the Mariners do have a bit of a history to work with here, too.
Will Tanaka be worth an investment of at least $37 million dollars in 2014 and $17-plus million for several years to come? That is impossible to say. But his performance of the last several seasons in Japan (1.44 ERA and 30 complete games in the last three years) and his pitching repertoire (from Baseball America and from April, but good) seem to suggest that he can follow in the footsteps of the recent successes enjoyed by Yu Darvish, Koji Uehara and others. He has more velocity than most people have been reporting (can get it up to 96) and his splitter and slider are both easy plus, swing-and-miss offerings. Baseball Prospectus did a fantastically detailed breakdown of his mechanics (subscription required) today that raised a few concerns about his delivery, but it is hard to believe that the success he's had over the last few years would've happened if there were any major issues there. And this six-year mean projection run by Clay Davenport of how Tanaka's future could work out is extremely impressive.
The competition for Tanaka's services is going to be plentiful, and that $17 million figure could end up being dwarfed as I hold one front office executive tell me, "Nothing will surprise me. I think someone pays him MUCHO big bucks," when I asked for his projection on Tanaka's contract. The Mariners could very well not be willing to go as high in terms of dollars or as long in terms of years as will be required to land him, but they do have connections to try and play on with Tanaka if they do want to be in the game.
We'll see how it all plays out in less than a month.
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