Tigers rumors: Is Detroit a dark horse in the Masahiro Tanaka sweepstakes?

Koji Watanabe

Masahiro Tanaka, one of the top pitching prospects in the world, was posted by his Japanese club and is available as a MLB free agent. Could the Tigers be one of the teams looking to add Tanaka to their rotation?

The biggest name to now available in MLB's open market is Masahiro Tanaka, a 25-year-old right handed starting pitcher who has spent his entire career with the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles in Nippon Professional Baseball. This past Thursday, Rakuten made Tanaka available to all 30 major league teams via the posting system.

The release fee owed to Rakuten is expected to be the maximum amount of $20 million, paid in installments only by the team which signs Tanaka. Once any team agrees that they are willing to pay Rakuten for Tanaka's release, they will have 30 days to negotiate. Tanaka's MLB signing deadline is 5 p.m. January 24, 2014.

Every team having the option to negotiate is a new policy for MLB. Before this off season, any NPB player entering MLB was only allowed to deal with a single team, whom first had to win a blind bidding process.

Tanaka is coming off one of the most dominant seasons in NPB's long history ... or for that matter, in baseball history, period. Tanaka was undefeated in leading Rakuten to the NPB championship, posting a 24-0 record, a 1.27 ERA, 183 strikeouts and 32 walks in 212 innings over 27 starts. He was undefeated in the post season as well, going 6-0. For his efforts, Tankaka was named the MVP of the Pacific League, also winning his second Sawamura Award, the Japanese version of the Cy Young.

In a recent article listing possible landing spots for NPB's top starting pitcher, Baseball America's Ben Badler believed Tanaka would be an excellent fit with the Tigers, considering Detroit a dark horse in the sweepstakes to sign the Japanese ace.

Instead of trying to extend Scherzer, the Tigers could sell high on the American League Cy Young winner coming off a career year—something that seems right up the alley of general manager Dave Dombrowski—while betting on the rest of Tanaka’s 20s rather than the first half of Scherzer’s 30s. Or the Tigers could keep Scherzer and trade Porcello, who’s under control for two more years with an $8 million projected salary through arbitration next season. With lefthander Drew Smyly capable of moving to the starting rotation, the Tigers have elastic options.

Despite the general consensus of major league teams being Tanaka can immediately step into the top of any rotation in baseball, there are caveats. Tanaka is looking to sign a massive, long-term contract worth a minimum of $17 million a year, which may (rightfully) make the Tigers blink.

Tanaka's workload to this point of his career, as it is for nearly all Japanese pitchers, is mind-blowing to Westerners. Tanaka has pitched for Rakuten since the age of 18, and has 1315 innings under his belt in seven NPB seasons. That's not even taking into account his high school years. A typical example was Tanaka throwing 742 pitches in 53.2 innings in six appearances (some on back-to-back days) in the 2006 National High School Baseball Championships.

For reference sake, 25-year-old Rick Porcello (one of the poster boys for the Verducci Effect) has thrown 1021.2 innings since entering the Tigers' system in 2008.

Of course, there's also the track records of other Japanese pitchers who have crossed the Pacific, many of whom flamed out after early success. The most notable of late being the highly regarded Daisuke Matsuzaka, who was very effective in 62 starts over his first two seasons with the Red Sox (finishing fourth in the 2008 AL Cy Young vote), but has a 5.41 ERA in just 61 total starts since 2009. The Red Sox were still paying the now injury wracked Matsuzaka through 2012.

Regardless, Tanaka is far too enticing a prospect to let the usual red flags keep major league teams from falling all over themselves to sign him. There is a risk in committing to Tanaka, but the rewards for the team who signs him could be massive. He's still young and would be under team control through his prime years. Tanaka is already proven, having been extremely successful at a high level and should step into any big league rotation almost immediately.

They would not be the favorites (That would have to the Mariners and Dodgers, the Yankees and Cubs not far behind), but it's possible the Tigers will be in on the race to sign Tanaka. The money is there, the team having cleared over $75 million in future salary commitments over the past two months. If the Tigers are looking to prepare themselves for what appears to be the inevitable departure of Max Scherzer, there no easier way to do so than by ponying up and signing Tanaka.

As Badler says in his Baseball America piece:

The Tigers have shown a keen eye for talent and striking at the right moment. Tanaka could be their latest opportunity to capitalize on a premium player who fits for them.

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