There’s really only one story out there at the moment in the MLB offseason – no matter which team you support. That story is Masahiro Tanaka. If you follow baseball at all (after the season is over, that is) you’ve heard at least a little about Tanaka. He is and was generally regarded as the #1 pitcher in this “free agent class” despite never throwing a pitch on this side of the Pacific. We have seen Japanese pitchers come over to the states and flop, but we have also seen enough perform spectacularly well that this makes sense. Despite the high price that the Rangers paid, Yu Darvish is looking like a better use of the funds than Zack Greinke would have been. Tanaka is considered to be a similarly elite talent, perhaps even better than Darvish.
Oct 19, 2013; Boston, MA, USA; Detroit Tigers starting pitcher Max Scherzer (37) walks to the dugout after being relieved during the seventh inning in game six of the American League Championship Series baseball game against the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park. Mandatory Credit: Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports
A lot of teams have been mentioned in connection with Tanaka, including (of course) the Yankees as well as teams you’d usually never expect to see involved in high-stakes free agent negotiations at this point in their rebuilding process like the Astros and Twins. This reminds me a bit of last year’s Anibal Sanchez market in that the number of teams showing interest was unusually high due to his (relative to other free agent options) youth and lack of draft pick cost. Tanaka is only 25 – significantly younger than just about any “normal” US free agent, having put in the required 6 seasons to break free of team control – and whereas the top domestic free agent pitchers, who are not reckoned to have Tanaka’s stuff, will cost a draft pick Tanaka will not. Teams like the Astros figure Tanaka would be hitting his mid-career peak at right about the same time their prospect torrent vaults the team back into contention. However, as with Sanchez, we can expect a lot of teams to drop out as the bidding gets high (including, potentially, the New York Yankees).
We have not heard, as of yet, anything liking the Tigers to Tanaka and I’m not sure quite why not. The Tigers do not need another starter and the Tigers don’t have any money to spare, but that honestly should not be stopping them – unless they simply think that Tanaka is overrated. If I had to guess, my guess would be that Tanaka is going to cost the $20 million posting fee and then a 6-year $100 million contract on top of that. Rich, of course. The team that signs Tanaka is going to have to be one comfortable with adding a fairly expensive piece by any standards and not one hoping to get a star at a bargain (like Jose Dariel Abreu or Yoenis Cespedes). In the Tigers case, the team is most definitely comfortable with longish contracts for high-priced talent (within reason) wut does not have infinite resources. Signing Tanaka would be – unambiguously – a marker of a plan to move on from Max Scherzer and in this light it would make a tremendous amount of sense.
We know that Scherzer is very good, we also know that he can be inconsistent. We know that his agent is drooling over the contract he can negotiate for Scherzer next offseason, though it may well be with Detroit. I would say with a fair degree of certainty that Scherzer is going to be far less of a bargain to resign than Tanaka. 5 years and $140 million, maybe, for the same $28 million per season that Justin Verlander is going to be getting. Scherzer isn’t exactly going to be cheap (though well worth it) in 2014 as the Cy Young boosts his arbitration earnings either. Scherzer is also much older than Tanaka, as strange as that might be to imagine. A 5 year contract for Tanaka would encompass his peak, for Scherzer his decline. What’s more, letting Scherzer go would bring a return to Detroit whether in trade (most likely) or via free agency in terms of a sandwich pick. Since Tanaka does not cost a draft pick, that would come out to a net gain even if he and Scherzer required identical checks. While Scherzer is a known quantity, I would argue that an extension for him would carry every bit the risk of Tanaka – due to past mechanical inconsistency and the increased risk of injury that comes with age.
The payoff – in 2014 – would be trivial. Given that the Tigers are a franchise with an apparent soft salary cap of $160 million… This would be a move made for 2015, in an effort to keep the Detroit Tigers championship window open for as long as possible. In addition to Max Scherzer’s looming free agency, the Tigers are going to need a right fielder and a DH with what is sadly a pretty barren talent pipeline. The Tigers could afford to give Scherzer an excessive Boras payday IF one (probably both, realistically) of those guys could be replaced with prospects. Unfortunately, the only way for the Tigers to get those prospects would be to deal Scherzer, which is a bit of a Catch-22. As a result, we get the likely post-2014 scenario in which the Tigers plan to replace Max Scherzer with Robbie Ray and sign second-tier free agents to replace Martinez and Hunter (or resign Martinez and Hunter themselves for a last gasp).
I don’t like the sound of that at all. I don’t like it to such a degree that if I were Dave Dombrowski, notorious for playing his cards close to his vest, I’d be desperately searching for a better option. Maybe one such option would be giving Masahiro Tanaka whatever he wants, then turning around and undercutting the Rays in the ace trade market to deal Max Scherzer to the Mariners. The Rays insist on getting the Mariners lone elite prospect (Taijuan Walker) for David Price, the Mariners insist he’s off the table. Maybe, just maybe, a package of D.J. Peterson, Stefen Romero, James Paxton and Carson Smith would seem like a bargain. None of them is a top-100 prospect, but they’re close to big-league ready and they’d probably all join the Tigers organizational top 10. If everything went “according to plan” I’d expect Smith and Paxton to replace Phil Coke and Joba Chamberlain and Peterson, Romero and Nick Castellanos to fill RF, 3B and DH in some combination or another following 2014 or in case of injury during 2014.