12/26/2013 12:10 P.M. ET
Tanaka may prove to be high-yield investment
Japanese right-hander possesses rare elite stuff to warrant long-term contract
By Richard Justice / MLB.com
Even in this offseason of wild spending, the bidding for Masahiro Tanaka may make all those other deals look like warmup acts. That's because there has seldom been a 25-year-old pitcher with top-of-the-rotation stuff enter free agency. Tanaka may not be perfect. He may not be the next Yu Darvish or Max Scherzer, but those guys aren't available. So the bidding could get insane.
Speaking of Scherzer -- and Clayton Kershaw and David Price -- take careful notes, fellas. This is going to be a very enjoyable few days as your own dances with free agency approach.
To the people who think giving long-term contracts to pitchers is foolish, take a deep breath and deal with it. This bidding is about a handful of teams -- the Yankees, Diamondbacks, Dodgers, Rangers, others -- seeing Tanaka as giving them an immediate chance to play deep into October.
First, let's pause to look at this guy and why scouts have been effusive in their praise of him. Again, Tanaka is 25 years old. Even the most cautious evaluators believe he'll be at his best for at least the next three or four years if he stays healthy.
After that, Tanaka will have to make an adjustment to pitching with diminished velocity. But there's every reason to think he can do this. While Tanaka's fastball has been clocked in the 92-95 mph range, he has an array of other pitches.
Tanaka has a nasty splitter and a decent slider. He throws a curveball too, a passable one. But the thing that really excites scouts is that Tanaka seems to know how to utilize all those weapons.
In 212 innings this season, Tanaka walked 32 and struck out 183. Those numbers tell you he has command of the strike zone and that he trusts his stuff. There's almost certain to be an adjustment period in the United States. Will Tanaka still pitch confidently when he's roughed up a couple of times?
Almost every pitcher deals with "trusting your stuff" issues at various points in their careers. Sometimes, it's something as simple as changing teams that triggers it. Other times, it's signing a big contract and then trying to justify its. It was painful watching Darvish go through a tough stretch two years ago, when he was either unwilling or unable to throw strikes.
Darvish seemed to get over the hump after a tough-love talk with Rangers manager Ron Washington in which the message was, "Be yourself." (It was a bit more colorful than that, but you get the message.)
Because Tanaka's delivery is so smooth, because his stuff is so good and because he knows how to command his fastball while working other pitches into the mix, there's a consensus among talent evaluators that he'll be good from day one.
Since we've seen less of him, our expectations almost certainly will be off the charts. And Tanaka will have to deal with a dizzying number of changes, from the quality and strength of opposing hitters to life in a foreign land, and new teammates, umpires, ballparks, etc.
That adjustment period is why plenty of people believe the Rangers have a huge advantage. Since Tanaka and Darvish are workout partners, Tanaka could have an immediate comfort level in Texas. Still, the Yanks remain the consensus favorites to land him because he's so critical to their off-season.
Now about the money. If you're looking for a comparable, think Felix Hernandez. Actually, there isn't a true comparable, but King Felix is close. He was 26 years old when he signed a deal worth $175 million over seven years with the Mariners earlier this year.
Hernandez was a year older than Tanaka, but he'd also won 98 big league games and an American League Cy Young Award. Having proven himself on the game's biggest stage, Hernandez rightfully got a contract that became one of the gold standards for others.
Verlander was four years older than Tanaka when he re-upped with the Tigers for $180 million over seven years. Zack Greinke was also 29 when the Dodgers signed him for $147 million over six years. Cole Hamels was 28 when the Phillies re-signed him for $144 million over six years.
Darvish is another interesting comparable. Like Tanaka, he was 25 when he entered free agency. Darvish ended up with a six-year, $56 million deal, but the circumstances were different.
The Rangers spent $51 million on a posting fee that gave them exclusive negotiating rights. The team that gets Tanaka will have a $20 million posting fee cap, but be in a true free-agent bidding war with every other team willing to spend the $20 million.
Verlander's contract averaged out to $25.7 million per season, which is slightly more than Hernandez's $25 million, Greinke's $24.5 million and Hamels' $24 million.
It'll be fascinating to see where the bidding opens and how the $20 million posting fee figures into the process. Given that the Yankees typically are aggressive when they make signing a guy a high priority, it probably won't serve competitors to be timid.
That's why the bidding could go anyplace. The Yanks would like to make Tanaka an offer that closes the bidding process before it really begins. And every other team will be thinking the same thing.
If you're on the outside looking in, the numbers will seem crazy. But what's a trip to the World Series worth in terms of ticket sales, sponsorships, international visibility, broadcast contracts and the like?
Teams will see signing Tanaka not as a seven-year deal, but as a chance to make an immediate impact and then follow up with a trip to the playoffs in 2014. By seeing the deal simply as an investment, it's easier to understand. The bottom line is that at a time when most teams don't let their best players reach free agency, Tanaka is seen as a difference-maker. In other words, a bunch of teams believe he'll be worth the investment.
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.