The offseason market for starting pitchers may finally be about to get moving this week as Masahiro Tanaka, the standout star from the Rakuten Golden Eagles, has landed in the United States to begin meeting with major league teams ahead of the January 24 deadline, according to David Waldstein of the New York Times.
With the grand tour set to begin, Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com reports that the Los Angeles Dodgers, Chicago Cubs, Chicago White Sox, New York Yankees, and Arizona Diamondbacks will meet with Tanaka by Friday in Los Angeles. Heyman also suggests that the Los Angeles Angels, Seattle Mariners, Minnesota Twins, and Texas Rangers may talk with Tanaka during the visit. The 25-year-old starter is also expected to see a physician so as to provide a full medical report to each interested team.
Every team in the league would no doubt be better off with Tanaka in their rotation, but the teams rumored to be most heavily involved have different reasons for targeting Tanaka. The Dodgers have the strongest rotation of the group with Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke, Hyun-jin Ryu, and Dan Haren all locked in for 2014, but as they look to the final opening, Tanaka is more appealing than Josh Beckett, Chad Billingsley, or whomever else they would call upon. Without Tanaka the Dodgers would likely have one of the best rotations in baseball, but adding him to the mix would help turn them from NL West favorites to likely pennant winners, and their seemingly unlimited payroll allows them to pay for that luxury.
The Cubs aren't a team that is expected to contend in 2014, but with loads of top-end talent coming up through their farm system, they could be serious contenders within the next couple of seasons. The Cubs have plenty of financial leeway and given that Tanaka is only 25-years-old, he would still be expected to be in his prime during a Cubs championship window.
The crosstown White Sox are in a similar rebuilding phase, albeit without the top end talent, but they appear to be remaking their roster with an eye on the future. Tanaka wouldn't do much for the White Sox in 2014, but it's rare to find a top end starter on the market at 25 and putting him in a rotation behind Chris Sale could give the Sox something to building around for the later part of the decade.
As is true with any big free agent, the Yankees are interested in Tanaka as well. They have already made big moves this offseason by signing Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann, and Carlos Beltran, but in order to keep up with their AL East brethren they likely need to do more to get back to the playoffs in 2014. At this point it looks as if their goal of staying under the $189 million luxury tax threshold is unlikely and signing Tanaka would put that dream to bed regardless of what happens with Alex Rodriguez's pending suspension. That said, C.C. Sabathia is exiting his prime and the Yankees lack an heir to his spot atop the rotation.
The Diamondbacks are also in need of a rotation upgrade as they had the 20th best park-adjusted ERA in baseball in 2013 and head into 2014 looking to challenge the Dodgers for the NL West title. Patrick Corbin is coming off an impressive season but the rest of their rotation dealt with injuries and underwhelming performances last year.
Aside from the Angels, Mariners, Twins, and Rangers, as noted by Heyman, the Blue Jays could also be a fit considering how poorly their rotation performed in 2013 (118 ERA-) despite very high expectations.
Reports indicate that Tanaka is looking for a deal worth at least $17 million per season over at least six years, which means whichever team wins the bidding will be making something like a $140 million commitment to the right-handed hurler after factoring in the $20 million posting fee. There are never any guarantees, but the scouting reports on Tanaka are glowing and his 2.30 ERA in 1315 innings and 4.5 to 1 K/BB ratio in Japan make him a very attractive commodity as the rest of starting pitching market is underwhelming, with two of the best also tied to losing a draft pick.
It isn't clear if Tanaka will be able to step in as a true number one starter in the majors, but his excellent command and lights out splitter should at least provide a strong number two or three starter for whomever is able to sign him.