Is Japanese Pitching Star Masahiro Tanaka Worth Asking Price of $17-20 Million?

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Is Japanese Pitching Star Masahiro Tanaka Worth Asking Price of $17-20 Million?
Koji Watanabe/Getty Images

What is Masahiro Tanaka worth?

That question is bound to dominate Major League Baseball for the next few weeks, now that the star Japanese pitcher has officially been posted after months of expectation, speculation and anticipation.

While baseball's free-agent pitching market has been delayed up to this point while teams awaited a final decision on Tanaka, said market is still relatively thin on talent. To wit, none of Ubaldo Jimenez, Ervin Santana or Matt Garza—the top three names that have been available since the start of the offseason—have even sniffed a deal. By now, it's become pretty clear that teams are not all that eager to dole out major money to any of them.

This has led to early estimates that Tanaka could command a contract worth $17 million per year at a minimum, according to Bob Nightengale of USA Today:

Folks, let's face facts: Tanaka is going to get more than that. There are two major reasons why, never mind the lack of top-tier starters currently available.

And neither reason, by the way, even has much to do with the fact that he's a 25-year-old right-hander who went 24-0 with a 1.27 ERA over 212 innings in continuing his domination of Nippon Professional Baseball and helping the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles to their first-ever Japan Series win. Or that over his seven-year career in Japan, Tanaka has gone 99-35 with a 2.30 ERA.

Both reasons, though, do have very much to do with the new agreement, reached in mid-December, between MLB and NPB.

For one, there's now a maximum of $20 million on what is called the "release fee" that goes to any Japanese team that is willing to post its player and will be paid only by the MLB club that ultimately signs the player. Gone are the days of the blind posting fee, where the one MLB team that put up the highest amount was awarded exclusive rights to negotiate with the player.

For another, because the release fee is "merely" $20 million—a figure that's rather affordable for most MLB squads—that means that not only will more money go into Tanaka's pockets, but also that more MLB teams will partake in the process, giving the Japanese star more leverage throughout the negotiations.

In short, Tanaka will benefit because not only will MLB teams have more to fork over to him as opposed to the Golden Eagles, but he'll also have more teams able to talk dollars and years with him and his representation directly.

By comparison, the last two elite, big-name Japanese pitchers to make the jump across the Pacific while in their mid-20s were Daisuke Matsuzaka in 2006 and Yu Darvish in 2012. Each garnered north of $100 million in total, but nearly half of those deals were spent on the posting fees. The Boston Red Sox paid $51.1 million to the Seibu Lions, while Matsuzaka got $52 million over six years; and the Texas Rangers paid $51.7 million to the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters, while Darvish got $60 million over six years.

If the total cost to acquire Tanaka remains in that same $100-$110 million range, he would be in line for about $80-$90 million himself, with the Golden Eagles getting $20 million. Spread over six years—the same number both Matsuzaka and Darvish got—that's already $15 million per for Tanaka.

But chances are, because this new system allows for something close to a free market, Tanaka's price will be higher. That tends to happen when more than one team—and perhaps as many as 10 or 15—can negotiate with a player.

To that point, a number of suitors have been mentioned, even prior to Tanaka's posting becoming official. Among them? Many of the usual big-market clubs like the Yankees, Dodgers, Rangers, Diamondbacks, Angels, Giants and Mariners. When the big boys get interested, involved and invested, the money is only going to escalate.

Already, it's been reported that the Yankees, long considered the favorites for Tanaka, have been in touch with Tanaka's agent, Casey Close, who also reps Derek Jeter, Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke, per Marc Carig of Newsday.

But because Tanaka is only 25 and should have more than just a few prime years left—unlike, say, Jimenez, Santana or Garza—even rebuilding teams that are a year or two away from contending, like the Cubs and Astros, have been rumored to be a part of the chase.

Meanwhile, David Kaplan of CSN Chicago reports that the Cubs are going to do all they can to land Tanaka, even pointing out that they won't be outbid:

With Tanaka officially being posted Thursday, the 30-day period for teams to negotiate and finalize a contract with the right-hander ends on Jan. 24 at 5 p.m.

Between now and then, we're all but guaranteed to see a bidding war for Tanaka, one that could be dragged out and reach well into the nine figures over six or seven years.

Is Tanaka worth, say, $120 million for six years—or $20 million per? He projects to be a No. 2 starter in the major leagues, one who is smack in the middle of his prime, so the going rate would figure to be right in that range.

Between this offseason's relatively thin pitching market, the recent success of Japanese arms like Darvish and Hisashi Iwakuma of the Seattle Mariners, and the new player-friendly posting agreement, ultimately, the question isn't whether Tanaka is worth upward of $17 million to $20 million per year.

The question is: Which team is going to give it to him?

 

To talk baseball or fantasy baseball, check in with me on Twitter: @JayCat11

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