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Should MLB GMs Be Wary of Masahiro Tanaka's Abused Arm?

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Should MLB GMs Be Wary of Masahiro Tanaka's Abused Arm?
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Due to Major League Baseball's current posting system, via Yahoo! Sports' Jeff Passan, for international free agents, Japanese right-handed pitcher Masahiro Tanaka represents a market inefficiency for big-market teams attempting to stay under the luxury tax. What he represents as a bargain as a potential ace may be negated by the risks that will accompany his lucrative contract.

While the transition from Japan to the majors represents a jump in competition and inherent risk, it's Tanaka's right arm that should keep any interested general manager up at night.

Last weekend, Tanaka's Japan Series appearance caused a stir. No, it wasn't the 160-pitch complete-game loss in Game 6, ending the perfect 24-0 season posted by the 25-year-old, that made headlines in the United States.

It was the next day. 

After the 160-pitch marathon outing, Tanaka came out of the bullpen, via Hardball Talk, to throw 15 pitches in Game 7. His versatility to appear in relief, willingness to come back on short rest and guile to save the deciding game will resonate with Major League Baseball executives.

Concern about a potentially abused arm, however, will weigh even more heavily into his next potential contract and risks surrounding the next phase of Tanaka's career.

A scout attending the game expressed concern at the number of pitches Tanaka's arm has been exposed to during this stretch. When approached by David Waldstein of The New York Times, the scout, speaking on the condition of anonymity, was blunt about his feelings.

"I am worried about his arm," the scout said.

Before jumping to conspiracy theories about Tanaka's current team, front office or game manager in Japan, context is needed. As the Times piece noted, it is an honor to be on the mound for the final out in Japan. After the 24-0 season, his manager, Senichi Hoshino, likely was only thinking about Tanaka's legacy when sending him out there for the final 15 pitches of his Japanese career.

If long-term abuse was suffered due to the relief outing, it wasn't done out of malice.

Of course, intent doesn't matter here. The 15-pitch relief outing may not seem excessive at first glance, but the process was foreign to a pitcher who had only twice before appeared out of the bullpen in seven professional seasons.

For Brian Cashman, Theo Epstein or any other potential bidder, damaged goods won't help him win a World Series in the near future. But concern won't temper expectations or dissuade ownership from writing lucrative checks if Tanaka passes the necessary physical and is deemed fit to compete and succeed in Major League Baseball.

Ultimately, results will determine Tanaka's future legacy away from Japan. In recent years, international pitchers like Hiroki Kuroda and Yu Darvish have changed the perception that Japanese pitchers would struggle mightily with major league hitters. As noted in September when profiling Tanaka's eventual move to the big leagues, the ability is there for a top-tier pitcher to emerge and lead a first-division staff.

Despite the coverage around the 15-pitch relief outing, assessing the long-term strength of Tanaka's arm and future fatigue concerns won't be as simple as putting the pitcher through a battery of medical tests and physical exams.

A quick look at Tanaka's year-by-year starts and innings-pitched marks proves his durability to this point but is far from a good look at his future. Despite the notion of pitch counts and pitching gurus monitoring young arms at every level, pitchers break down on a daily basis in the majors. Even the most durable and well-maintained deliveries have unexpected hitches and long-term medical risks attached.

Should MLB GMs be wary of Tanaka's arm?

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The 15-pitch relief outing raised eyebrows in the media and with fans monitoring the hot stove, but front office executives were likely concerned well before the Japan Series began.

Inherently, pitchers are at risk for injury. When an organization has the opportunity to draft, develop and cultivate its own young arms between the ages of 18-22, there is a sense of limiting risk and placing the athlete on a path of long-term health. Yet even those pitchers break down quite often.

In the case of Tanaka, a big-market team is likely going to spend well over $100 million, between the posting fee and free-agent contract, to secure his right arm for the next half-decade. The inability to truly know what kind of wear and tear it experienced over the course of 172 starts and 1,315 innings isn't just worrisome; it's terrifying.

Much like Yu Darvish, there's an excellent chance Tanaka's body was built to sustain the rigors of pitching at a professional level in both leagues. General managers should be wary, but in order to secure a potential ace, risks must be taken.

 

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