The potential posting of Japan's top starter has held up the top end of this offseason's pitching market.
What do Ubaldo Jimenez, Ervin Santana and Matt Garza have in common?
That's right: They're all big-name free-agent starting pitchers who are out there for the taking. To this point, though, nobody's done any taking.
As the winter meetings are beginning to wrap up—Thursday is the last day—the story of Major League Baseball's offseason so far has been, well, just how busy it's been. Except on one front: the top of the free-agent pitching market.
By comparison, the available position players have more or less been picked clean already. Among the top options at the outset of the offseason, only outfielder Shin-Soo Choo remains after deals were struck by everyone from Robinson Cano, Jacoby Ellsbury and Brian McCann to Curtis Granderson, Carlos Beltran and Mike Napoli.
That's not to say there hasn't been any movement on arms. In fact, Hiroki Kuroda, Ricky Nolasco, Tim Hudson and Scott Feldman have landed deals that will pay them north of $10 million in average annual value. But none of those names were anywhere near the tippy top of this class of starters on the open market.
And so entering mid-December, mum's more or less been the word on Jimenez, Santana and Garza. Sure, there's been speculation, but nothing that's ever felt close to imminent on any of those three. Not yet.
And maybe not until a certain Japanese sensation's status is resolved once and for all.
That would be Masahiro Tanaka, who, through no fault of his own, is holding the rest of the pitching market hostage. You may be asking, Why would a Japanese starter be the reason for this bottle neck? Only because he's a 25-year-old right-hander with a low-to-mid-90s fastball and a devastating splitter who many project as a No. 2 starter—immediately.
Oh, and we should mention, in case you haven't heard by now, that he went 24-0 with a 1.27 ERA last year for the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles.
In other words, Tanaka is the top arm on the free market this year. Or at least he would be if he's ever actually posted. Therein, folks, lies the rub. And the holdup.
The previous agreement between MLB and Nippon Professional Baseball regarding the process by which Japanese players could be posted came to an end this year, and it took longer than expected to hammer out a new one.
That's been all but taken care of now, according to Paul Hagen of MLB.com.
That's not the end of it, though. In an odd twist, the new agreement that was supposed to allow Tanaka to be posted actually may prevent just that.
You see, this new process enforces a $20 million maximum bid from any MLB teams interested in Tanaka or any other Japanese player who has yet to play nine NPB seasons and thus reach outright free agency. From there, if multiple teams submit that max amount—and many would for a talent like Tanaka—each one would have the ability to negotiate with the player.
That's good news for Tanaka, since he'll be able to treat this as much more of an actual free agency than he would have under the old system wherein a single team won the posting bid—and thus, exclusive rights to work out a deal with the player.
Here's Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports, who's been on top of these developments, with a for-instance:
For example: If Astros, Yanks, Dodgers, Angels all throw a $20M bid on Tanaka, all of them can negotiate with him. Practically free agency.— Jeff Passan (@JeffPassan) December 5, 2013
Trouble is, what's good for the player isn't as good for his team, in this case the Golden Eagles. Prior to this $20 million cap, speculation on the potential bidding numbers reached upward of $70 million, if not higher.
Essentially, the Golden Eagles, who control Tanaka's rights through 2015, are now facing the proposition of allowing the best pitcher in the league, the driving force behind their first-ever Japan Series title, to leave early—without being financially compensated at the level they had expected initially.
Meanwhile, MLB.com's Peter Gammons seems to think Tanaka won't be coming over any time soon:
Not only are Rakuten Golden Eagles opposed to ever-changing US posting rules, but tonight leaning against posting Tanaka, period.— Peter Gammons (@pgammo) December 5, 2013
GM:"The new posting agreement kills Japanese owners. So why would Rakaten post Tanaka and get nothing for him?" Which is why they won't— Peter Gammons (@pgammo) December 5, 2013
Even Darvish echoed those sentiments via Twitter.
So here, already in mid-December, we have a dynamic where the most-coveted pitcher on the market remains, for the moment, little more than a theory, a hope, a possibility.
And yet because of the temptation, the allure, the potential of Tanaka, teams are hesitant to spend money on another big-name arm when it could be better used on Tanaka.
By the way, the will-he-or-won't-he surrounding Tanaka is impacting more than just the free-agent market. Yes, Doug Fister and Brett Anderson, along with a few lesser names, have been dealt. But the top starters who are rumored to be available via trade—like David Price, Chris Sale, Jeff Samardzija and maybe even Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels—haven't yet swapped teams, in part because Tanaka's status remains up in the air.
Even assuming the Golden Eagles do wind up posting Tanaka in the very near future—because, hey, $20 million is still better than what they'd get if he stays in Japan and gets hurt or simply walks away to pursue his dream after 2015—there's still an issue of timing.
Under the previous posting process, the team with the winning bid was awarded a 30-day window in which to finalize a contract with the Japanese player. If that time frame remains the same under this new agreement, with the possibility of 10 or more teams all trying to negotiate with Tanaka, well, this holdup could continue into the new year.
Certainly, any team in search for pitching simply could choose to change course and go after one of the already available top starters at any point. Frankly, that might be the savvy play as a way to address a rotation hole, set the market price for the other arms and avoid the letdown and mad rush that would ensue should Tanaka not be posted at all.
But for now, it seems, Jimenez, Santana and Garza—three free-agent right-handers at the top of the market—will have to have another trait in common.
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