Japanese ace Masahiro Tanaka is far and away the most prized free agent on the market right now. There is a strong consensus in baseball that the 25-year-old has what it takes to be an anchor at the top of any big league rotation. Every team needs pitching, specifically good pitching, so now that the ball is actually rolling on Tanaka's posting process, this is sure to be the biggest story in baseball for a good while. The 25-year-old Tanaka is everything you could ask for in a pitcher: young, good, healthy, durable and, above all else, available.
But nobody's perfect.
Tanaka is a classic workhorse. He's only 25, but he has logged seven seasons in NPB and averaged nearly 25 starts and 190 innings per season. But being a classic workhorse is a double-edged sword. Like any good workhorse, He was ridden hard. Over his last five seasons with the Rakuten Golden Eagles, Tanaka averaged 113 pitches per outing. And those are his age 20-24 seasons. When most American pitching prospects are working their way up through the minors, slowly building their arm strength and working on pacing themselves, Tanaka was working harder than Justin Verlander.
Diamondbacks preparing their Tanaka sales pitch
Even if it means flying their private jet allll the way across the Pacific, Arizona execs are going to do what it takes to have a chance at Tanaka.
That's enough to give a number of MLB front offices pause. According to Jeff Passan of Yahoo!, many executives have already (anonymously, of course) voiced their concerns. If I was a betting man though, I'd say those executives work for teams that aren't likely in the hunt for Tanaka anyway. It could all be sour grapes. After all, it only takes one team to give Tanaka the shipping crate full of cash that he is looking for.
Besides, the correlation between pitch counts and health just isn't definitive enough at this point to use it as the sole mitigating factor in valuing a pitcher. One could compare Tanaka to Daisuke Matsuzaka, who also came over from Japan and who also cost his team over $100 million, and start cringing and swallowing hard. Matsuzaka also threw a lot of pitches in Japan before coming to the States and he ended up giving the Red Sox only three seasons of over 150 innings because of numerous arm injuries.
Or one could compare Tanaka to Yu Darvish, who has been terrific in his two seasons so far with the Rangers. But it's also probably narrow-minded to compare Tanaka only to his countrymen. Many are comparing him to Dan Haren, one of the most underrated pitchers of the past decade. Haren threw more than 200 innings a year for seven straight seasons in his prime. Of course, that prime began when Haren was 24. He didn't work nearly as hard at as young an age as Tanaka did.
But the secret to pitcher durability is yet unknown. Should you use kid gloves and make sure their tender, young arms are brought along slowly, or should you push them to build their arm strength? For every Stephen Strasburg there is is a Felix Hernandez.
So all this is basically to say that numerous caveats apply. Tanaka is a pitcher after all, so who knows. They are notoriously fickle creatures. One thing is for sure though: one un/lucky MLB team will make him very, very rich this winter.