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Leaders for the Next Great Japanese Pitcher

With all due respect to new additions Robinson Cano of the Seattle Mariners, Jacoby Ellsbury and Brian McCann of the New York Yankees and Prince Fielder of the Texas Rangers, the biggest superstar on the move this offseason has yet to find a home in Major League Baseball. And no, I’m not talking about Manny Ramirez and his latest comeback bid.

Of every player getting a new contract or switching teams via trade, none will make the kind of franchise-changing impact over the duration of their deal as Masahiro Tanaka will. The pitching sensation, formerly of the Rakuten Golden Eagles, is the kind of talent who can be built around as a cornerstone for the long haul or be added to a current contender as the final piece on the way to being named World Series favorites.

Tanaka is just 25 years old and coming off what may be the best season for a pitcher in Japanese Baseball history. He went 24-0 with a 1.27 ERA on way to an MVP award and a Japan Series championship. The superstar from Hyogo started 30 consecutive games without recording a loss, a streak that lasted until his 160-pitch effort in game six of the Japan Series. Tanaka then bounced back to close out game seven and secure a championship for the Golden Eagles.

From a scouting perspective, Tanaka has the makeup to match the numbers. He stands at 6’2” with a smooth, repeatable delivery that results in pinpoint control (183 strikeouts to 32 walks in 2013).

Although he doesn’t have the overwhelming power fastball of the other Asian pitcher who came to America in recent memory with this much hype, 6’5” Texas Rangers pitcher Yu Darvish, Tanaka’s heater sits in the low 90’s and comes with a great horizontal slider to offset it. His out-pitch is a split-finger fastball that will instantly be among the best in baseball and bring back memories of Roger Clemens. Like Darvish, Tanaka utilizes a wide repertoire of pitch types to keep hitters off-balance, including off-speed pitches and a variety of cuts and sinking breaks on his fastball.

In style and professional background, Tanaka resembles Hiroki Kuroda of the Yankees and Hisashi Iwakuma of the Mariners more than Darvish, but the level of success in Japan is more reminiscent of the latter. Given that all three pitchers are Cy Young contenders at their best, Tanaka faces high hopes and expectations. His predecessors established a blueprint for a successful Japan to U.S. transition, and while not every import is a success story (see: Daisuke Matsuzaka), Tanaka has shown the potential to be the greatest of them all.

The question on everyone’s mind remains: Where will Tanaka sign? The courting process is coming to an end with teams making their pitches and final offers. According to the new international posting rules, Tanaka must sign by Friday, which means he will have to announce his decision by Wednesday in order to allow a couple days for the necessary physical examination.

Five teams have been named as “finalists” for Tanaka’s services. The New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers are widely regarded as the favorites to sign him, for a variety of reasons. The Yankees are in desperate need of a new ace pitcher and are opening up the checkbook with no further regard for the luxury tax threshold. In previous years, what would have been a sure-thing signing for the Yankees is not so concrete today. They have the money and the need, but Tanaka is said to prefer the west coast. His wife is a pop star in Japan, and the bright lights of Hollywood might affect his decision. If Tanaka wants to play for a contender while also being the unquestioned staff ace, the Yankees might have the edge. If Tanaka wants to play for the best team on paper with no regard for his spot in the rotation, he might choose Los Angeles.

The Dodgers under Stan Kasten are the new big spenders in baseball and have yet to make a big splash this offseason. Even after signing Zack Greinke and Clayton Kershaw to long-term contracts, money is still no object for Los Angeles, especially considering they will have the huge contracts of Josh Beckett, Chad Billingsley and Dan Haren off the books by 2015, clearing up over $40 million a year in payroll.

Kasten worked for the Atlanta Braves during their 1990’s dynasty, when Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz dominated the National League East. He obviously has similar aspirations with this Dodger team, and a rotation of Kershaw, Greinke, Tanaka and Hyun-Jin Ryu would be really difficult to beat in a seven-game series.

Three other teams, the Chicago Cubs, Arizona Diamondbacks and Chicago White Sox, have also made offers to Tanaka. Arizona in particular plans to offer every penny they can scrounge up in an attempt to woo Tanaka. The D’Backs need to take their team to the next level to compete with the other juggernauts in the National League West, and getting a great pitcher for the next decade would be a good place to start.

The Cubs are rebuilding under the guidance of Theo Epstein and would offer Tanaka the chance to slowly adjust to American baseball while comfortably being the face of the franchise when they finally start to contend in a couple years. The White Sox do not have a ton of appeal, but are making a strong push anyway. Consider Seattle and the Los Angeles Angels to be dark horses in the Tanaka sweepstakes.

Whatever team wins the bidding for Tanaka, expect the deal to average around $20 million a year. Even though he has no MLB experience, $120 million over six years seems like a fair price to pay for a pitcher who is just entering his prime.

Based on teams’ spending power, ability to contend, location, international marketing appeal and long-term track record, the Dodgers seem to have the slight edge on the Yankees for signing Tanaka. However, nobody will really know his priorities until a decision is made. Based on Tanaka’s Twitter post expressing his inability to reach a final decision, expect the race to come down to a photo finish at the end of the deadline.

 

A version of this article appeared on page 10 of january 22, 2013′s print edition of The Daily Nexus.

Art by Emily Zhang of The Daily Nexus.

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