In a weak free agent class, Japanese pitcher Masahiro Tanaka drew interest from a slew of teams, but it was ultimately the New York Yankees that reportedly landed the services of the 25-year old hurler on Wednesday morning.
Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports had the contract details:
BREAKING: Tanaka to #Yankees, seven years, $155M, opt-out after fourth year.
— Ken Rosenthal (@Ken_Rosenthal) January 22, 2014
That $155 million contract is the fifth-highest contract for a pitcher in the big leagues, and the number had to be high considering what Tanaka is capable of producing. In the 2013 season with Rakuten, Tanaka went 24-0 with 183 strikeouts and a 1.27 ERA, along with a .943 WHIP on the season.
It was those numbers, along with four pitches that he is capable of throwing for strikes consistently that led so many teams to be interested in acquiring Tanaka. The Chicago Cubs were reportedly one of the two finalists to land his services, along with the Yankees, and the Chicago White Sox, Arizona Diamondbacks and Los Angeles Dodgers were also reportedly in the mix along the way.
The bidding for Tanaka was the first test of MLB’s new posting system for Japanese players. In years past, teams would initially have to submit a “posting bid,” and the Japanese team would select the highest bid. Then, the team would have an exclusive negotiating window with the player.
This year, that rule changed, with teams simply paying a flat fee (in Tanaka’s case, $20 million) to the club while making a contract offer directly to the player.
One of the big questions surrounding Tanaka as he came to the United States is one of workload. Like some other Japanese pitchers, Tanaka has thrown a lot of pitches in a lot of innings in his career, already racking up over 1300 innings on his arm in seven seasons with Rakuten.
Despite that, interest was strong in Tanaka because of his wide array of pitches. His fastball, clocked between 91-94 MPH sets up there other good out pitches, including a split-finger fastball that has scouts drooling. That ability to throw so many different looks at a batter led to a career strikeout rate of 8.5 per 9 innings during his time in Japan, and drew comparisons to other Japanese pitchers like Yu Darvish.
When reports initially came out that Tanaka was planning on coming over to the US, several teams were reported to be interested. The Dodgers insisted that they “would not be outbid,” according to reports, and several other teams were rumored to be kicking the tires, including the Cubs and White Sox.
The bidding process was a remarkably quiet one, with Tanaka’s agent Casey Close keeping the contract offers under wraps. Late in the process, reports surfaced that the Cubs were making an aggressive push to acquire Tanaka, and the arguments for the North Siders to make that deal were strong. Their farm system, while rich with hitters like Javier Baez, Kris Bryant and Jorge Soler among others, is relatively weak on pitching depth, with CJ Edwards and Pierce Johnson being the only two notable hurlers in the system.
Signing Tanaka would have not only bolstered their Major League rotation today, but it also would have been a clear sign that the team feels that they are going to be competitive within the next two to three years. By 2015, Baez and perhaps a few other prospects will be making their way up to the big leagues, and in the year after that players like Bryant and Soler will be attempting to crack the Cubs’ lineup.
At any rate, being that close to signing Tanaka and failing to grab his services will be regarded as a setback, albeit a minor one, for Cubs President Theo Epstein and GM Jed Hoyer. Tanaka was the first big time free agent that the Cubs have really pursued (unless one counts P Anibal Sanchez, who spurned the Cubs and signed with the Tigers), and missing out on him does hamper the rebuild a bit.