Star Japanese pitcher Masahiro Tanaka has just ten more days -- until January 24 -- to agree to a new contract with a Major League Baseball team. If no deal is reached, he will return to play for the Rakuten Golden Eagles once again, and America will have to wait one more year for him to be posted again.
Given how much several teams covet Tanaka, it seems extraordinarily likely that he will not agree to a deal with anyone. He and agent Casey Close seem to know that, too, and are setting their goals high. At least one executive in baseball believes that Tanaka could earn $140 million in a new contract. Along with a $20 million release fee, that would mean a team is paying around $160 million for the 25-year-old. That would shatter the total of $107.7 million the Rangers paid for Yu Darvish. In fact, $160 million would tie for the 14th largest amount paid for a free agent ever. A $140 million player contract would make Tanaka the sixth-highest paid pitcher in MLB history.
And all this for a player who has never faced major league competition. Still, it's hard not to see why teams are enamored with Tanaka. In 2013, he started 27 games for Rakuten and pitched in relief in one more. He posted a 1.27 ERA and 0.94 WHIP with 183 strikeouts in 212 innings. He has maintained an ERA under 2.00 each of the last three years and at or below 2.50 for the last five. Tanaka averaged nearly eight innings per start in 2013, has a mid 90s fastball and has been said to have one of the best splitters in the world. And at 25 years old, he still has plenty of room to grow.
With Tanaka's scouting reports, stats in Japan, age, and Darvish's success in America, plenty of teams have at least looked into him. With ten days remaining, and shortly after teams met with Tanaka in Los Angeles, here is where they stand:
Yankees: Brian Cashman desperately wants Tanaka. With just CC Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda and Ivan Nova as locks for the rotation, the Yankees have prized Tanaka as someone who could turn the team into a division favorite. The Yankees are said to be a top contender for him and with a revamped outfield and catching situation, look to be willing to spend as much money as is needed. They are aided in that quest by the suspension of Alex Rodriguez, which saves them $27.5 million in 2014. While New York wants to stay under the $189 million luxury tax, they appear willing to blow by that number if it means they can land Tanaka.
Dodgers: Unfortunately for New York, they may no longer be the big spenders in town. The Dodgers and their enormous TV deal have run rampant over the MLB the last couple of years as it seems any free agent they want, they get. Los Angeles does not have as great a need for a starter as the Yankees -- the Dodgers already have one of the best rotations in baseball with Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke, and Hyun-Jin Ryu. Adding Tanaka to the mix may make that staff one of the best of all-time, and would aid the Dodgers' quest to buy a World Series title. The Dodgers may be willing to outbid anyone for Tanaka, and they have the finances to do so. Add to that the fact that Tanaka's wife prefers the west coast and Los Angeles appears to be a pretty likely landing spot.
Could make a run
Mariners: When Tanaka was first officially posted by Rakuten, the Mariners immediately became the favorites to sign him before the Yankees and Dodgers swooped in. Seattle has made one splash already this offseason by bringing in Robinson Cano, but many questioned that move when they still do not appear close to contending. Coming to a deal with Tanaka could silence those doubters as a Tanaka-Felix Hernandez-Hisashi Iwakuma rotation along with a revamped offense and several almost-ready top prospects could make them contenders for years to come.
Cubs: Chicago seems to have slowly moved away from Tanaka as the bidding for his services has soared. The Cubs are still in a rebuilding phase, but have an outstanding farm system that could make them NL Central contenders soon. However, they have a lack of pitching prospects on the horizon, making someone like Tanaka extremely valuable to them. They may not be willing to spend quite so much when they are still a few years away from contending, despite Tanaka looking like their top priority earlier in the offseason. Still, the Cubs are working on a new TV deal and could have a great deal of money coming in soon. They may just be lying in wait and could pounce if they see an opening.
Have shown interest
Diamondbacks and Blue Jays: Both teams have been looking for an ace to join already fairly solid starting rotations. The Blue Jays are likely to bounce back after a dreadful 2013 season marred by injuries while the Diamondbacks have a potent offense that should see them at least compete for a wild card spot. Both Arizona and Toronto have been the most oft-mentioned landing spots for pitchers like Ervin Santana and Ubaldo Jimenez, but neither might have the funds for Tanaka. The Blue Jays were one of the top teams in on Yu Darvish, however, and after his success may want to push harder for the next Japanese sensation.
Red Sox: At first, the Red Sox reportedly did not have an interest in Tanaka. Reports the past few days indicate the team may be back in on him, however. While Boston did not meet with Tanaka while he was in Los Angeles, they have had conversations with him. While the Red Sox can not match the Yankees or Dodgers financially, they are still one of the biggest spenders in the MLB and can go toe-to-toe for any player on occasion. Like the Cubs, they may be lurking in the shadows before making a surprising offer if they see it Tanaka as worthwhile.
Rangers: Given the success of Darvish in their rotation and the recent injury of Derek Holland, it seems like the Rangers would be a good candidate to sign Tanaka. Indeed, earlier in the offseason they were listed as a top landing spot for him, and many of their fans have wanted him. The Rangers are still keeping an eye on negotiations, but with the big contract to Shin-Soo Choo earlier in the offseason, they likely can not outbid the top teams.
Angels: Los Angeles did not meet with Tanaka when he was in town and at this point are likely wary of dishing out such a large deal. The Angels still have Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton on the books for exorbitant sums and want to keep enough cash available to sign Mike Trout to what will likely be a record contract in the not-so-distant future.
Twins: The Twins are in the midst of a complete overhaul of their MLB-worst rotation and have already signed Ricky Nolasco, Phil Hughes and Mike Pelfrey. While they showed an interest in Tanaka earlier, it's hard to see them having the funds to bring him in without significantly raising payroll going forward. It appears they have instead focused on cheaper foreign options like Suk-Min Yoon and two Cuban defectors.
Royals: The Royals were mentioned as a possibility to spend for Tanaka in order to make a push for the playoffs. Adding a top-flight pitcher could help them surpass the Indians and Tigers, but general manager Dayton Moore sounds content with the team he has going into spring training. Adding Tanaka would also shoot payroll up to unprecedented levels for the club.
Astros: Houston recently inquired about Tanaka and what it would take to land him. But with general manager Jeff Luhnow saying "We did our homework and we acted in the best interest of our organization," it doesn't sound like it will amount to much.