Masahiro Tanaka is one popular pitcher.
That makes a ton of sense considering that the right-hander is coming off a 24-0 campaign with a 1.27 ERA for the Rakuten Golden Eagles of Nippon Professional Baseball.
The New York Yankees, Los Angeles Dodgers, Seattle Mariners and Chicago Cubs are the top contenders to land the pitcher, who is expected to command a contract north of $100 million, including the posting fee, per Bill Madden of the New York Daily News. Madden also mentions the Arizona Diamondbacks, Los Angeles Angels and Texas Rangers as teams that could be in the hunt.
However, because it only costs a $20 million refundable fee to speak with Tanaka, there will be plenty of speculative suitors that enter the bidding as well. Here's a look at five potential dark horses in the Tanaka sweepstakes.
Note: All salary information via Cot's Baseball Contracts on BaseballProspectus.com.
The Detroit Tigers already have a loaded starting rotation. So just why, exactly, would they get involved in the bidding for Tanaka?
As Ben Badler of Baseball America explains, the signing of Tanaka could be the precursor to a trade involving Max Scherzer, who becomes a free agent at the end of the 2014 season:
Instead of trying to extend Scherzer, the Tigers could sell high on the American League Cy Young winner coming off a career year—something that seems right up the alley of general manager Dave Dombrowski—while betting on the rest of Tanaka's 20s rather than the first half of Scherzer's 30s.
It's an intriguing idea from Badler, especially considering that Tanaka is substantially younger than Scherzer. The Japanese right-hander will be 25 for all of the 2013 season, while the Tigers ace turns 30 next July.
In such a scenario, though, it's unclear if Detroit would actually be selling high on Scherzer. With just one year of club control remaining, potential trade partners will be highly reluctant to part with their best pieces.
GM Dave Dombrowski could still pull off a surprise move for Tanaka, but he could just as easily hold on to the 2013 AL Cy Young winner.
As is the case with the Tigers, the Washington Nationals don't have an obvious need for Tanaka.
That means there's an extremely slim chance that the starter ends up in the nation's capital, according to Adam Kilgore of The Washington Post. However, Kilgore has brainstormed a creative situation in which the Nationals could actually be in on Tanaka:
One hard-to-fathom but interesting-to-consider scenario: land Tanaka and use [Jordan] Zimmermann as a massive trade chip. The Nats may have to trade Zimmermann next winter if they cannot sign him to an extension; why not circumvent that AND get more value for Zimmermann while he's got two years remaining.
Zimmermann would be one massive trade chip, indeed.
As with the Tigers' situation, though, signing Tanaka would require a lot of extra work without any guarantee of a sure upgrade. The Nationals would be far safer banking on Jordan Zimmermann rather than making a $100 million-plus gamble on an immensely talented pitcher who has never actually thrown a big league pitch.
The Toronto Blue Jays definitely still need to upgrade their rotation.
In 2013, Blue Jays starting pitchers gave up the second-most runs in all of baseball, per ESPN.com. As Tanaka demonstrates in the video above, his addition would go a long way in correcting that shortcoming.
According to Brendan Kennedy of the Toronto Sun, GM Alex Anthopoulos "won't say whether or not he has contacted the agent" for the free-agent pitcher.
As Kennedy observes, Anthopoulos' reluctance to give a straight answer suggests that there has been at least some contact between the two sides. Either way, Tanaka will certainly play a key role in how the Blue Jays' offseason works out.
Once Tanaka is off the market, pitchers like Ervin Santana, Ubaldo Jimenez and Matt Garza will finally be able to find new employers for 2014. Santana and Jimenez would be particularly strong fits for Toronto because the club would only have to part with a second-round pick rather than its protected first-round selection.
Still, until Anthopoulos denies the club's interest outright, the Blue Jays remain sleepers in the bidding.
The Oakland A's could be a major player in the chase for Tanaka, according to one unnamed MLB executive, Bill Madden of the New York Daily News reports. The executive pointed to the club's track record of going after high-profile international targets:
Watch out for Oakland. They've got as much money as any team and they like doing these big international things—as with their signing of (Yoenis) Cespedes and the fact they were second to the Reds for Aroldis Chapman.
The importance of those past pursuits can't be underrated. Plus, it doesn't hurt that the team plays in O.co Coliseum, which was the fifth-most pitcher friendly park in baseball last season, according to ESPN's MLB Park Factor rankings.
Of course, it should also be noted that the A's signed Cespedes to a four-year, $36 million deal and the Cincinnati Reds snagged Chapman with a six-year, $30.25 million contract. Tanaka's payday could potentially triple what either of those two players received. For that reason, the A's are very much long shots for the ace.
On the surface, it doesn't make much sense for Tanaka to sign with the team that lost by far the most games in 2013.
However, the Houston Astros should have more than enough cash to pay for the Rakuten standout, as Buster Olney of ESPN notes (subscription required). By Olney's calculations, the Astros have just $34 million on the books beyond the 2014 season.
Tanaka would also be an ideal fit for an Astros organization that is stockpiling young talent. In the long run, he would headline an Astros rotation that ultimately could also include Mark Appel, a former No. 1 pick.
In the short term, the signing of Tanaka would help drum up excitement for a team that dropped 111 games in 2013.
The Astros already have made runs at both Shin-Soo Choo and Jose Abreu this offseason, as Evan Drellich of the Houston Chronicle reports. Tanaka would offer far more star power than either of those two, and for that reason, the Astros can't be ruled out of the sweepstakes.
If you want to talk baseball, find me on Twitter @KarlBuscheck.