The most prominent free agent left on the board is a Japanese player the vast majority of us have never seen pitch, in person or otherwise.
But Masahiro Tanaka is a potential rotation-changing pitcher who is just 25 years old -- a rare open-market commodity who appeals to contenders and rebuilders alike. Tanaka's field, therefore, covers a vast terrain, and his arrival in North America last week adds a heavy layer of intrigue to a mid-January period in which many clubs have already addressed their most pressing needs.
Because we know little about Tanaka, personally -- his desires, his comfort zones, etc. -- his likely landing spot is especially difficult to forecast. But knowing what we know about the Major League landscape, at present, we can certainly take some educated guesses, and that's what the MLB.com team of columnists, analysts and personalities seeks to do here.
Marlon Anderson: Cubs
President of baseball operations Theo Epstein has the money, and if they plan to compete in the next couple of years, they need a No. 1 guy they can sell to the fans.
Mike Bauman: Yankees
The New York Yankees were conventional wisdom's early pick as Masahiro Tanaka's new North American employers.
The Yankees, after all, have the money, the track record of spending the money and a real need to improve their starting rotation.
|C.J. Nitkowski||Red Sox|
Now, with Alex Rodriguez suspended for the entire 2014 season for violating Major League Baseball's Joint Drug Agreement and Basic Agreement, the Yanks have essentially found an extra $25 million, the amount of A-Rod's 2014 salary. Rodriguez would likely have earned additional millions through incentive clauses.
Rodriguez is appealing the finding of an arbitration panel that reduced his suspension from 211 games but still suspended him for one full season. But the Yankees don't need to worry much about that. The federal courts have repeatedly respected the process of binding arbitration.
The competition for Tanaka's services will be intense. The right-hander is viewed as being alone atop the crop of free-agent starting pitchers. Other clubs with plenty of revenue and plenty of need will be in the hunt.
But it is difficult to pick against the Yankees in the Tanaka derby. They have the means. They have the motivation. And they just came into an additional $25 million-plus for 2014. So Tanaka goes to the Yanks.
Anthony Castrovince: Mariners
Because Tanaka is so young and the investment in him will cover such a long period, the interest is widespread enough that one can envision a team like the Cubs, who have been notoriously frugal in free agency under Epstein as they try to build an internal foundation for 2015 and beyond, getting as involved as the Usual Suspects in what has been a wild winter spending spree in MLB.
Ultimately, though, I believe this is a situation that will come down not just to resources but desperation. And of all the clubs in on Tanaka -- and there are many -- the Yankees and Mariners seem to have the most need to match the necessary resources.
The Yanks, leery of their experiences with Hideki Irabu and Kei Igawa, did not mount an aggressive bid on Yu Darvish two years ago, and you wonder if they regret that now. Their need to add to a rotation fronted by CC Sabathia, who has a lot of miles on his left arm, is glaring, so I expect them to be particularly vigorous in their pursuit.
But my gut says the Mariners land Tanaka, given the built-in advantages that come with their West Coast location, their history of success in integrating Japanese players (Hisashi Iwakuma included) into the Major Leagues and the timing of this posting. The Mariners have already made a huge splash in signing Robinson Cano, but few would evaluate their roster and conclude that its a completed project. Slotting Tanaka behind Felix Hernandez and Iwakuma could vault them from a potential upstart to a no-doubt-about-it contender in a difficult division, and I think they'll seize this opportunity to claim that standing.
Jim Duquette: Yankees
They need him more than anyone else in MLB and will go the extra mile to make sure he's wearing pinstripes.
Paul Hagen: Mariners
What's most important to Tanaka? Is it the biggest stage? If so, he'll probably lean toward the Yankees. Is it comfort level? The Mariners are owned by Nintendo of America and are geographically as close to Japan as any Major League franchise. Then again, Los Angeles has the largest Japanese-American population in the continental United States. Is it need? The Rangers hopes of contending took a hit when left-hander Derek Holland was lost for the first half of the upcoming season with a freakish knee injury, and the Phillies have only two established starters in Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee. Is it winning? That opens up the possibilities. Is it the most money? That creates even more possibilities.
Since only Tanaka really knows what his priorities are, it's impossible to make an educated guess about where he'll eventually sign. But the suspicion here is that Seattle's $240 million investment in Robinson Cano only whetted general manager Jack Zduriencik's appetite for another headline-grabbing acquisition.
Richard Justice: Yankees
The Yankees, right? Has to be. Can't be anywhere else. I mean, let's be logical. At least that's the conventional thinking. The Yanks have had Tanaka targeted as a huge offseason priority, having shown little interest in any of the other free-agent pitchers other than their own Hiroki Kuroda. So it's difficult imaging Tanaka pitching anyplace else next season. If he does, it'll be the biggest upset of the offseason.
The Yankees have money, although Tanaka's final decision may not come down to signing with the highest bidder. The Yanks also offer more exposure, and the possibility of pitching October baseball at Yankee Stadium seems compelling enough to get the job done.
If there's an uncertainty about it, it would be that it hasn't happened yet. That he might find the Mariners compelling because of his friendship with Iwakuma. Or the Rangers because he's buddies with Darvish.
The D-backs can offer lots of money, too, and the chance to be part of a first-rate franchise, one far from the pressure-cooker atmosphere that is Yankee Stadium. The Dodgers? Ever been to Dodger Stadium? See?
Tanaka surely is weighing all the possibilities. Not many 25-year-olds have such an array of attractive options. While no one knows all the things he'll be considering, the chance to pitch for the Yankees probably will be decisive.
Jeff Nelson: Dodgers
I think Tanaka wants to play for a West Coast team where he will be closer to home. It seems to me that president/CEO Stan Kasten and general manager Ned Colletti are lying in the weeds a little. They have the money, and by adding Tanaka, they very well could be World Series bound.
C.J. Nitkowski: Red Sox
Boston is a dark horse in this. John Lackey's salary is $500,000 in 2015. Jake Peavy and Ryan Dempster are older and will be off the books soon. Questions surround Clay Buchholz's health, and Jon Lester will be a free agent after the 2014 season. They have long-term rotation concerns. Tanaka makes perfect sense for them. They offered Jacoby Ellsbury somewhere near $100 million; they have the money, and they need him long term.
Phil Rogers: Mariners
Before Tanaka led the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles to the Japan Series title in the fall, he had experienced one winning season in six years with them. The Golden Eagles are based in Sendai, the league's most remote and financially challenged market. It's all Tanaka has known, and he liked it there. He liked being part of building a winner. Will he now be comfortable going to New York and trying to extend the competitive window for MLB's most watched, most dissected franchise? Or is he going to look for a franchise with wa -- a Japanese concept about the power of group harmony? I think it will be the latter.
The Yankees might make the highest bid for Tanaka and not get him, as he looks for a place he can be comfortable. No interested team fits that model more than the Mariners, who can reunite him with Iwakuma, who mentored Tanaka from 2007-11 when they were Golden Eagles teammates. Another factor: Golden Eagles president Yozo Tachibana has had a long friendship with Epstein, which could help Tanaka's evaluation of the Cubs. But on the heels of the Cano signing, it's the Mariners who are best situated to land Tanaka.
Lyle Spencer: Yankees
How in the name of The Boss -- George Steinbrenner, not Bruce Springsteen -- can the Yankees let Tanaka get away? They can't.
If they're the notorious, vainglorious, hated, beloved Yankees we all grew up with, they'll go into the vault and produce what it takes to make their rotation championship quality. Luxury tax worries? Please. That's for non-royalty. If the Dodgers aren't worried about it, why should the Yanks be? They're the Yankees, by George. The rich are different. And who in this sport is richer than the Bronx Bombers?
The Red Sox are the reigning World Series champions. That should be enough of an incentive alone. Then there's the delicate matter of replacing Mariano Rivera and wondering if Derek Jeter will be Derek Jeter again. The fans are restless. The Yankees need to dive in and make the big splash.
Sure, it's great having airlifted Jacoby Ellsbury out of Boston and acquiring Brian McCann and Carlos Beltran. The Yanks will have a solid lineup again. But Tanaka is the missing ingredient, a front-end starter who would have the wonderful Hiroki Kuroda as a big-brother figure. Everything is in place. When you get right down to it, Tanaka in pinstripes just makes too much sense not to happen.