Asian right-handers add intrigue to open market
Posting system, health concerns are factors when considering Tanaka, Yoon
When the baseball world converges on Lake Buena Vista, Fla., for the annual Winter Meetings that begin Monday, almost every team will be looking to improve its pitching. That's not unusual. The twist this time around is that two Asian pitchers -- Japan's Masahiro Tanaka and South Korea's Suk-min Yoon -- could help determine where and when the market moves.
Adding to the intrigue is that there are question marks about both right-handers.
Major League Baseball has been involved in extended negotiations with Nippon Professional Baseball over the posting system that, until now, had governed how most Japanese stars get to the Major Leagues. In fact, a Japanese delegation was in New York last week for further discussions. MLB chief operating officer Rob Manfred said no agreement has been reached.
Until there is one in place, the 25-year-old Tanaka, who went 24-0 with a 1.27 ERA during the regular season for the Rakuten Golden Eagles, remains in limbo.
In Yoon's case, the concern is focused on his health. After winning his league's MVP Award in 2011 and following that up with another solid year in '12, the 27-year-old dealt with shoulder issues last season. On the plus side, he would not require a posting fee, and the team that signs him will not give up a Draft choice.
Here's how the posting system has worked until now: Teams interested in a Japanese player submit blind bids. The winner earns exclusive negotiating rights. If a contract agreement can't be reached, the posting fee is returned and the player goes back to his team in Japan.
The problem, from MLB's perspective, is that this method tends to keep smaller market teams from being able to make bids. The NPB, obviously, wants its teams to make as much money as possible to compensate for losing a star player.
There are rumblings that the two sides may be approaching an understanding. The Japanese media outlet Sanspo reported Wednesday that the NPB is expected to accept an MLB proposal that would limit posting fees to a maximum of $20 million. But some of the details are still unclear.
Some reports suggest that if multiple teams make the maximum bid -- which would almost certainly be the case with Tanaka -- that the player would then be free to negotiate with each of those teams and sign with whichever team he preferred.
Another version, however, had it that the team that bid the limit with the lowest winning percentage would have exclusive rights to sign the player. The concern there, of course, was that this could theoretically provide a disincentive for losing teams to try to win down the stretch.
No matter what, putting a cap on posting fees would be a giant step toward keeping large market teams from freezing out the competition with overwhelming dollars; the Rangers paid $51.7 million just for the right talk to Yu Darvish before signing him to a 6-year, $60 million deal.
On Nov. 14 at the Owners Meetings, Manfred said that while he is mindful that teams are anxious to know whether they have a chance to sign Tanaka or consider other options, he's more focused on making a deal that will help preserve MLB's competitive balance. "[The status quo] isn't acceptable from our perspective," he said. "The Japanese players association has an agreement with NPB. At a certain point in time, their players become available via free agency. If that's the way we get Japanese professionals, I think the 30 Major League clubs are prepared to live with that result. So I don't feel a lot of pressure in terms of the time."
Presently, Japanese players must play nine years before earning the right to sign without being posted. Tanaka is two seasons short of qualifying.
Despite natural caution over how any player will make the baseball transition and the cultural adjustment to succeed in the United States, and the knowledge that Tanaka pitched in relief in the final game of the Japan Series against the Yomiuri Giants just a day after throwing 160 pitches in his start, Tanaka is widely viewed as a pitcher who can make a huge impact on any team's rotation.
Former big leaguer Casey McGehee, who played third base for the Golden Eagles last season, called Tanaka a "rock star" and said he's at his best when the situation is most tense.
"[Tanaka] gets this look on his face when he's turning it up. At that point it gets boring ... Just sit back and watch," McGehee told the New York Daily News.
"Obviously, he'll have to make adjustments if he goes to the Majors, mentally and physically -- get used to a new catcher, new style of calling games. But he'll be fine. He's the best pitcher in Japan -- and it's not close, either."
Yoon, according to reports, isn't as overpowering as Tanaka. But he knows how to pitch and has been successful at the international level in both the Olympics and World Baseball Classic. It doesn't hurt that he's generally regarded as the second-best pitcher from Korea, behind only left-hander Hyun-Jin Ryu, who pitched 192 innings and went 14-8 with a 3.00 ERA after joining the Dodgers last winter.
There have been unconfirmed reports this week that Yoon could be close to reaching an agreement, with much of the speculation focusing on the Cubs as a possible landing spot. The Twins had been rumored to be extremely interested before picking up Phil Hughes and Ricky Nolasco.
Both pitchers have already impacted the market. What kind of impact they'll make on the field, and when, remains to be determined.
Paul Hagen is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.