When the new posting process for Japanese players became official, I explained why I think Tanaka is “cheaper” for some teams nearer to the luxury tax threshold than the D-backs, and why I thought Arizona’s chances for landing him are low. Now that Tanaka has been posted, I thought I might discuss a few other dynamics in place that make it unlikely for Arizona to sign him.
I won’t repeat the analysis from a few weeks ago on why posting dollars are “cheaper” to teams near or over the luxury tax threshold, so head back to that last post if you don’t believe me. One conclusion I reached in that post, however, was that even though the new cap for the posting fee limits the effect of posting dollars being “cheaper” for some teams, it doesn’t eliminate that discrepancy as a factor entirely.
The D-backs organization has decided that it has a need for Tanaka or someone like him, but that does not mean that another team’s need for him is not more pronounced. Add to that the existence of some teams who have quite a bit more money to spend than Arizona, and some teams more greatly affected by the luxury tax issues — and I’d put Arizona’s chances of landing him at about 3%.
Chicago Cubs – 55%
Name the last time that a player who looked like he was likely to be well above average hit free agency at the age of 25. Give up? I don’t blame you — I couldn’t find one either. Having just turned 25 on November 1st, Tanaka will pitch all of next season at that age. Even Bryce Harper, who got a GED in high school to enroll at JuCo and enter the draft early, will play under his first free agency contract no younger than 26.
We’ve never seen a player with proven skills hit the market like this, not in the modern era. It’s entirely possible that we’ll be floored by the contract Tanaka eventually receives. If the Daisuke Matsuzaka and Yu Darvish contracts are any guide, it’s not likely that the Tanaka contract will be for less than 6 years — and given his age, we might find teams comfortable going longer than that. A 7-year contract would be completed by a 31-year-old Tanaka, after all. Ervin Santana will pitch the first season of his new contract at age 31, and both Ubaldo Jimenez and Matt Garza will be 30 next season. The theory goes with that trio of pitchers that one might have to pay for several seasons to get some of their “prime” seasons over the next 2-3 years — to get all “prime” seasons from Tanaka, one might do well to sign him to an 8-year contract.
Consider the situation of the Chicago Cubs. After three seasons with payrolls above $134M in 2009-2011, the Cubs committed to a rebuilding cycle, settling back down under $110M for the last two seasons. They have money to spend, but no reason to spend it on the 2014 version of the team. 2015 may spell the beginning of their turnaround, but it’s only 2016 and beyond that their good young players may be contributing to the major league club in a meaningful way. Now consider that of those good young players, almost all are position player prospects.
Add to that Theo Epstein’s comment from early November: “We wish there was a free agent market for young players.”
It could be that no matter what, Tanaka will have a bit of a transition period to deal with, as did Yu Darvish. It could be, then, that when he hits his stride in 2015, he’s doing so with the Chicago Cubs.
New York Yankees – 25%
Perhaps Tanaka is a better fit for the Cubs than for any other team — but the Yankees’ need for Tanaka might be the greatest in the land. New York’s rotation issues are profound. Beyond a declining CC Sabathia and Hiroki Kuroda, who agreed to give the Yankees one more year, they have the somewhat underrated Ivan Nova, slot filler David Phelps, and maybe Michael Pineda, who was great before shoulder surgery, but who is returning from… shoulder surgery. In the minors, most possibilities are either recovering from injury or recently returned from one.
Also — they’re the Yankees. Yes, they’ve been flirting with the recently-raised luxury tax threshold, but unless the luxury tax threshold is completely turning them off from spending money in general, Tanaka might still fit them. Assuming that the total price for Tanaka will be as much as teams can fathom paying him (and that total years won’t be a big factor), the posting fee is part of Tanaka’s price — and so Tanaka’s salary may be a bit lower than it might have been if he were a true free agent. In that event, we’re back to the effect of posting dollars. And as I wrote a few weeks ago:
Compare the position of the Yankees, then, to the position of the Diamondbacks. Both teams walk into a local store that sells batting practice balls. Neither team really needsnew batting practice balls, and there are other stores that sell them. Some of the balls are available for $10 per ball, to any buyer (these are the balls analogous to Tanaka’s salary). To get all of the balls, though, you have to buy a set of additional balls (the balls analogous to the posting fee), and the price changes — they cost $7 for the Yankees but $10 for the Diamondbacks. The store decides all of the balls have to be sold to one party. Since the balls are cheaper, overall, for the Yankees, it’s more likely that the Yankees will view the overall sale price as a good deal. Now consider that the Yankees have a lot more money — dollars are not as precious to them. Since they have more money, they might have paid even more for the balls than the Diamondbacks are willing to pay — but they only have to pay less.
If I were a betting man, I’d bet on the Cubs landing Tanaka. But if the Cubs were not in the running, I’d take the Yankees over the field.
Seattle Mariners – 5%
After the Cubs and Yankees, I think other teams’ chances of landing Tanaka are so low that Seattle’s “wild card” factor makes them the next-most-likely team. Maybe the Seattle organization disagrees with the perspective of outsiders that the Robinson Cano signing still has them falling short of the playoffs by a fair margin — but maybe they do agree, and maybe, if they agree, they’re willing to bid as wildly as they did in the Cano sweepstakes. Seattle has never been burned by an investment in a Japanese player before, unless you count Kenji Johjima (I don’t). There’s value in laying claim to a new cross-section of baseball fans in Japan, too.
Los Angeles Dodgers – 3%
We know they have the money, and we know that the Dodgers are as likely to derive benefit from the non-luxury-taxable $20M posting fee as any other team. With Zach Lee in the wings, though, they aren’t exactly banking on a full recovery from Josh Beckett, and the recently-signed Dan Haren will have some rope to work with. There isn’t much “need” here, and the Dodgers learned just a year ago that hoarding starting pitching doesn’t necessarily make it easy to trade the excess for other helpful pieces.
Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim – 3%
Even after adding two starters in Hector Santiago and Tyler Skaggs, the Angels still have a boatload invested in their club on the position player side, and not enough strong pitching to carry the load. If they sign Mike Trout long term, then their situation will not change much for quite some time. If they do not, however, that gives them a four (Trout departure) or three (Weaver departure) year window to win. With Jared Weaver, C.J. Wilson, Garrett Richards, Santiago and Skaggs all under control for at least three more seasons, the Angels might have enough — but with no minor league pitching to speak of, the Angels could be inclined to avoid rolling those dice (after all, if Skaggs were a sure thing, he’d never be gettable has half the price for Mark Trumbo).
Arizona Diamondbacks – 3%
I think the D-backs’ pursuit of Tanaka is a little unrealistic — but the club’s pursuit of Trumbo was unrealistic, too, in similar ways. Towers and maybe ownership are clearly zeroed in on 2014, and clearly zeroed in on Tanaka as the best of the pitcher options available. I cannot and will not count them out of this race, and because of Tanaka’s age, an investment in Tanaka would likely be embraced from all corners of D-backs Nation.
The Field – 6%
Some team could always come out of nowhere. It could be the Red Sox — they placed a high premium on building a fan base in Japan when the same ownership group bid for Matsuzaka. My guess is the number of teams to submit $20M posting bids could be anywhere between 5 and 15. And this is still essentially free agency. Tanaka has until January 24th to make a decision, and he could pick the best offer, or he could pick the best short offer, or best long offer, or just the team he liked visiting with the most. Again, I do think that the Cubs and Yankees should be greatly favored to sign Tanaka — but anything could happen over the next 29 days, and the D-backs will be among the other teams to have other offseason plans frozen until Tanaka chooses his own destiny.
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