12/21/2013 12:30 P.M. ET
Rakuten holding all cards when it comes to Tanaka
Japanese team may opt to hang on to star pitcher for another season
By Tracy Ringolsby / MLB.com
The Rakuten Golden Eagles have the upper hand in deciding whether to keep right-hander Masahiro Tanaka or allow him to be posted for bidding by Major League teams.
They could see it as a win-win situation.
Tanaka cannot become an international free agent until after the 2015 season. So Rakuten could deny its star hurler's request to be posted this year, keep him to pitch the 2014 season, then allow him to be posted and move to the Major Leagues next year.
Rakuten would benefit from an extra year of Tanaka, who was 24-0 with a 1.27 ERA in helping the Golden Eagles win the Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) title in 2013, while Tanaka would get his wish to come to the Major Leagues -- a year later than he requested, but a year before he could become a free agent. Tanaka, 25, might not like being forced to stay in Japan another year, but he would have extra motivation to pitch well to maximize his value a year from now for a Major League team.
The new posting system recently agreed upon between the NPB and Major League Baseball has taken away the incentive for Japanese teams to offer players to MLB clubs. It limits the amount a Japanese team can receive for a player to $20 million, instead of the open bidding in the past.
Boston paid just over $51.1 million to the Seibu Lions to negotiate with Daisuke Masuzaka prior to the 2007 season, while Texas paid $51.7 million to the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters for the ability to sign Yu Darvish two years ago.
Now, however, the new process opens up the pursuit of Japanese players to any team willing to post the $20 million fee. These clubs will have the right to negotiate with the available player, and only the team that actually signs the player will have to pay the posting fee.
This new arrangement certainly benefits the players, since teams would be more likely to increase their contract offers if they are paying less for the rights to bid. Small-market teams are also likely benefit, as well.
Yes, teams like the Yankees and Dodgers have deeper pockets, but they also face luxury taxes for surpassing the tax threshold, which was $178 million for the 2013 season. That's the catch. Money they would spend on a posting fee doesn't factor into their payroll, but an increase in the salary a Japanese player receives would.
The free-agent market for starting pitchers has hit a lull while teams wait to see whether they will have a chance to pursue Tanaka. Adding to the slowly developing market for Ubaldo Jimenez and Ervin Santana is the fact both were made qualifying offers by their former teams (Cleveland and Kansas City, respectively) -- which means any team that signs them will lose a top pick in the June's First-Year Player Draft.
Bronson Arroyo is one of the more intriguing free-agent pitchers. Yes, he will pitch at 37 in 2014, but he also has a track record of durability -- having made at least 32 starts in each of the last nine seasons. He's worked 199 innings or more in each of those campaigns, while compiling a 119-104 record. He's spent the last eight years playing for Cincinnati, which acquired him from Boston in the spring of 2006 for outfielder Wily Mo Pena.
There have been 51 Japanese players appear in the big leagues. Thirteen were active a year ago, including eight under contract for the 2014 season: OF Ichiro Suzuki, Yankees; RHP Kyuji Fujikawa, Cubs; OF Norichika Aoki, Royals; Darvish; RHP Hisashi Iwakuma, Mariners; RHP Hiroki Kuroda, Yankees, and RHPs Junichi Tazawa and Koji Uehara, Red Sox.
Japanese players who were active last year and are free agents include RHP Daisuke Matsuzaka; LHPs Hideki Okajima and Hisanori Takahashi; and INF Munenori Kawasaki. Outfielder Kensuke Tanaka signed a Minor League deal with the Rangers on Friday.
Only 13 Japanese players have spent more than five seasons in the big leagues, nine of whom were pitchers. The four position players are Ichiro, who has played 13 years and is currently with the Yankees; Hideki Matsui, who played 10 years, So Taguchi, who spent parts of eight campaigns in the big leagues; and Kazuo Matsui, who played seven seasons. Hideo Nomo (12 years) and Tomo Ohka (10 years) are the only pitchers with at least 10 years in the big leagues.
Nomo is the all-time leader in wins with 123. The only other Japanese pitchers to win as many as 50 big league games are Kuroda (68), Matsuzaka (53) and Ohka (51). Ichiro (.319) is the only Japanese player who has hit .300 or better. Hideki Matsui (175 home runs) and Ichiro (111) are the only Japanese players who have hit 50 or more home runs.
The first Japanese player to appear in the big leagues was left-handed pitcher Masanori Murakami, who debuted with San Francisco in 1964. The next Japanese player didn't come until Nomo with the Dodgers in 1995.
Nomo is the only Japanese pitcher to throw a no-hitter, and he did it twice -- with the Dodgers against the Rockies at Coors Field on Sept. 17, 1996, and in his Red Sox debut at Baltimore on April 4, 2001. Those are the only no-hitters thrown at those hitter-friendly ballparks.
Tracy Ringolsby is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.