In no more than 10 days, Masahiro Tanaka's offseason-long odyssey will be over. By then, the coveted right-handed pitcher from Japan will have signed with an MLB team or, short of that, returned to the Rakuten Golden Eagles.
The deadline for Tanaka to sign with an MLB team is Jan. 24, according to Mike Axisa of CBS Sports, but beyond that, there's still relatively little known about his dealings. Most recently, Tanaka ventured to the U.S. last week to meet with interested teams, but even that yielded only so much in the way of juicy reports.
So, for now, we're left with a very long list of potential suitors, a few reports and good old fashioned intuition to make sense of where Tanaka might eventually end up. Here are some of the many teams that are reportedly in on Tanaka, and each one's chances of coming away with him.
Looking for a dark horse in the Tanaka sweepstakes? The A's could be your team. A major league executive said to "watch out for Oakland" Bill Madden of the New York Daily News reported last week. As the executive pointed out, the A's have had a penchant for flying under the radar on international free agents recently, pulling off an upset two years ago in signing Yoenis Cespedes and ending up a finalist for Aroldis Chapman a few years before that.
Tanaka, though, is a different story. While the A's signed Cespedes for a cool $36 million, via Cot's, and the Reds nabbed Chapman for $30.25 million, also Cot's, Tanaka could end up clearing the nine-figure-salary hurdle. That's not really how the A's roll. The largest deal the organization has ever doled was in 2004, when Eric Chavez signed a six-year, $66 million extension, Susan Slusser of the San Francisco Chronicle reported in November.
The A's came to regret that deal, as Chavez did not age well. Even if they had the money to land Tanaka, I question whether they'd want to even go down that road again. I'd say this is the longest of long shots.
Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, the Indians are pursuing Tanaka and may make him a lucrative offer, Paul Hoynes of the Cleveland Plain-Dealer reported late last week. Cleveland doesn't have much of a recent track record of signing big-ticket free agents, but in fairness, it did pony up for Michael Bourn and Nick Swisher last offseason. Those moves help bring its payroll up to a still-modest $80 million, but its interest in Tanaka appears to suggest it's willing to spend more.
That being said, it's still hard to imagine the Tribe outbidding the big dogs for Tanaka if push came to shove financially, and Cleveland could be a hard sell for the foreign-born player. Here's what a source told Bob Elliott of the Toronto Sun:
"Tanaka wants to go to a World Series, wants a city where his family will feel at home since they don’t speak English. He has a desire to be on a team with potential to win and loves the pressure."
The Indians improved a lot last year and look like an up-and-coming team under Terry Francona, but I'm not sure Cleveland will conjure images of World Series and pressure for Tanaka. Unless the Tribe can put together a Don Draper sales pitch, I think their odds are very long.
The Halos were one of roughly a dozen teams that were scheduled to meet with Tanaka last week, reported Jon Heyman of CBS Sports. The Angels are probably long shots to sign him, Alden Gonzalez of MLB.com wrote in an opinion piece, but you can never count them out based on their history of signing high-priced free agents.
I think that just about sums up the Angels' standing in the Tanaka talks. Certainly they're not shy about signing expensive types; they inked Albert Pujols, C.J. Wilson and Josh Hamilton in the past two offseasons alone. But that spending may finally have caught up to them, as their most notable maneuvers this winter have come via trade, such as the deals that landed them David Freese, Tyler Skaggs and Hector Santiago.
Gonzalez notes that the Angels are bumping up against the luxury-tax threshold, so they might have to surpass it or free up salary elsewhere to bring in Tanaka. Either scenario is possible, sure, but a lavish expenditure on Tanaka would nonetheless run counter to what we've seen from the Angels so far this offseason.
The Blue Jays allowed the fourth-most runs in MLB last year, as you'll see in these standings over at ESPN, and Tanaka would go a long way toward reducing that ugly number in 2014. The sides have had multiple talks, Jon Heyman of CBS reported, and manager John Gibbons confirmed that the team is keeping tabs on him, Ben Nicholson-Smith of sportsnet.ca tweeted.
The Jays upped their payroll significantly last year to roughly $119 million, per Cot's, and though they were rewarded with a dud of a season, they nonetheless showed a willingness to spend big. If it was a sign of things to come, adding Tanaka would be a sweet followup.
Aside from the question of whether Tanaka would choose to end up in Canada rather than the U.S., there's also the matter of whether the Jays will pay what it takes to get him. Perhaps not, according to Bob Elliott of the Toronto Sun, who reported that Toronto won't hand over a seven-year contract. I do wonder whether the Jays can keep up with the big boys if the bidding gets fierce, and Elliott suggests the answer is no. I'm not ruling them out yet, however.
The White Sox went to a somewhat unusual measure to confirm their dealings with Tanaka, doing so via statement last week rather than leaving it to the news hounds. Here are the comments from GM Rick Hahn, via this MLB.com article:
The meeting was exploratory in nature. It was an opportunity for us to sit down with Masahiro and discuss how he potentially fits our vision for the Chicago White Sox for the next several seasons. Out of respect for Mr. Tanaka's decision-making process, the White Sox will have no further comment on the status of any additional conversations until he makes his final decision public.
So, what does that mean? Maybe nothing. Or maybe they want to signal to their fans, who have seen some lean years lately, that they're trying. There's essentially no cost for an audience with Tanaka, because only the team that signs him has to pay the posting fee. You could argue it's bad fan relations to completely ignore Tanaka's presence when any team can essentially talk to him for free.
I don't mean to imply the White Sox aren't serious suitors. They might be, and adding Tanaka would actually fit what they've done this offseason, rebuilding the major league roster with better, younger players. I wouldn't bet on it, but they make sense as something of a dark horse here.
Tanaka reportedly digs Boston. Is the feeling mutual? John Shea of the San Francisco Chronicle heard that Beantown was on Tanaka's short list of preferred destinations heading into talks with teams last week. The others were Los Angeles and New York.
Well, many Japanese players end up in with big-market teams, especially ones on the coasts, so Tanaka's reported preference isn't especially surprising. It appears the interest is mutual, as the Red Sox have been in touch with Tanaka's camp, according to Alex Speier of WEEI.com.
On paper, the Red Sox check most of the obvious boxes as a landing spot for Tanaka. They're fresh off a World Series win; they should have the funds to get a deal done; and the city of Boston would probably offer what Tanaka's looking for in terms of easing the transition on himself and family.
But he isn't going to come cheaply, and the Red Sox have a lot of young, affordable pitchers. It'd be hard to knock them for signing Tanaka, a high-probability, 25-year-old starter to a long-term deal, but there's some risk involved here. After all, all pitchers are one pitch away from an injury, and Tanaka has never even thrown a pitch in the majors. It's not a risk the Red Sox need to take, which could ultimately dissuade them when push comes to shove and the bidding goes up.
The Rangers have had an expensive offseason so far, taking on a big part of Prince Fielder's onerous contract and signing Shin-Soo Choo for $130 million. Do they have the bandwidth and interest for one more mega-deal?
Texas GM Jon Daniels vaguely addressed his team's financial situation as it pertains to Tanaka last week. "We've spent our budget, and then some," Daniels said, according to Gerry Fraley of the Dallas Morning News. True as that may be, Daniels could have simply said "we're out on Tanaka." But he didn't. Why not?
Earlier this month, Baseball America's Ben Badler described the Rangers, and several other teams, as "lurkers" in the Tanaka bidding, noting Texas has a strong scouting presence in Japan and, of course, ultimately came away with Yu Darvish two offseasons ago.
The Rangers could potentially offer Tanaka a lot of money, a recent history of winning and the promise of pitching with a fellow Japanese star. If they're willing to spend what it would take to land Tanaka, there's reason to think he'd be interested.
The Diamondbacks' interest in Tanaka has been reported seemingly all offseason, with Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports noting earlier this month that Arizona has made signing the right-hander its top priority. That's all fine, but there's also the question of whether they realistically have a shot at signing him, one that isn't lost on GM Kevin Towers. From Nick Piecoro of the Arizona Republic:
If they come out and say it's going to be the club that spends the most money on him, then we're probably not the front-runner. But everything right now is pure speculation by the media.
Within that same piece, Towers added that the Diamondbacks have carefully crafted their pitch and selling points for Tanaka. Will they be rewarded for their apparent diligence?
Again, it's difficult to say how Tanaka will make his decision. The Diamondbacks were 81-81 last year, so if winning is part of his criteria, they can tell him, "you'll put us over the top." Financially, though, it's hard to see them keeping up, and Arizona probably isn't the place where foreign free agents dream of playing.
You have to appreciate the Diamondbacks' zeal. Their interest isn't surprising, but if Tanaka signed with them, it would be a pretty big upset.
The rebuilding Cubs have been relatively quiet on the free-agent front under Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer, their most notable signing coming two offseasons ago when they landed Edwin Jackson for four years and $60 million. But they have been linked to Tanaka throughout the offseason and prepared to make him a nine-figure offer, according to Patrick Mooney of CSNChicago.com.
The Cubs' interest in Tanaka makes sense, as Ben Badler of Baseball America writes. Their farm system is loaded with blue-chip position players, Badler notes, but is relatively short on premium pitching talent. Tanaka would help bridge that shortfall.
It appears the Cubs have the resources and interest to sign Tanaka, but as Badler points out, they are still probably at least a year away from contending and perhaps even more. Are they willing to pay what it will likely take to land Tanaka under the pretense that his contributions won't make much of a difference up front? Is Tanaka willing to play for a team under those circumstances?
Last month, David Kaplan of CSNChicago tweeted that an MLB source told him the Cubs will not be outbid for Tanaka. The hard part, he added, would be convincing him to come to Chicago.
Last month, the Mariners made the splashiest signing of a position player this offseason, nabbing Robinson Cano for 10 years and $240 million. Now, rival executives think the Mariners have one more big move left in them, ESPN's Jayson Stark tweeted earlier this month, as they noted to watch out for the M's in the Tanaka bidding.
Meanwhile, Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports reported last week that the Mariners need ownership's approval for any more major moves. That's probably true, but then that is probably true of most teams, and obviously ownership didn't seem to mind shelling out $240 million for Cano. So, I'm not sure we can infer much from this other than reading it for what it is.
Seattle appears to be a good fit for Tanaka. It's had success in the past with a Japanese star in Ichiro Suzuki. Now, it has pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma, who was a longtime teammate of Tanaka with the Golden Eagles, according to Buster Olney of ESPN. That might count for something.
Moreover, the M's need Tanaka, both to improve their team and for the huge expenditure on Cano to make sense. After all, what is a blockbuster signing if it's not a move that makes your team in a contender? Tanaka could be that difference. As Stark's sources said, I think the Mariners are one to watch in this.
Just about every team in MLB could use Tanaka. The Yankees, however, might need him if they're going to make a serious run at returning to the postseason. I don't want to say the Yankees are desperate, but signing Tanaka appears to be their simplest route to bolstering what looks like a very questionable rotation led by the aging CC Sabathia and Hiroki Kuroda, Ivan Nova, and perhaps Michael Pineda, who hasn't pitched in the majors since 2011.
All it costs to sign Tanaka, after all, is money, and the Yankees have plenty of that. Better still, they have some extra breathing room with respect to the luxury-tax threshold now that Alex Rodriguez's $25 million salary has been wiped from the books due to his season-long suspension.
Theoretically, the Yankees should have the wherewithal to meet or top any offer for Tanaka. But will he simply go to the highest bidder? If you believe Shea's report, then it appears New York was already among Tanaka's preferred destinations. Combine that with the Yankees' deep pockets, and Tanaka in pinstripes begins to make all the sense in the world. I think the Yankees have as good a chance as anyone to come away with the prized right-hander.
For all the talk about their limitless checkbook, the Dodgers have had a relatively quiet offseason. They've not broken the bank for any free agent, and the biggest question surrounding them is whether they would offload Matt Kemp or another outfielder, to no avail so far.
But have they been quietly awaiting their chance at Tanaka? The Dodgers say they want Tanaka but won't make a crazy offer, Bob Nightengale of USA Today tweeted. The consensus in Japan, however, is that the Dodgers are one of two favorites to sign Tanaka, according to David Waldstein of the New York Times, who notes that Tanaka's wife prefers to be on the West Coast. This is very interesting, as it might be one of our first glimpses into Tanaka's decision-making process.
Meanwhile, Buster Olney of ESPN notes (subscription required) that the Dodgers' pursuit of Tanaka may be shaped by their extension talks with star pitcher Clayton Kershaw. Kershaw, Olney reports, already passed on something like a $300 million extension last summer. The Dodgers are all-in on winning World Series titles, Olney explains, and will likely move aggressively on Tanaka if they are uncertain about whether they'll be able to retain Kershaw.
And here, we have the makings of what looks like an ideal fit for both Tanaka and one of his suitors. The Dodgers can offer money, a major city on the West Coast and a chance to win both now and in the long term. Adding Tanaka would give the Dodgers arguably the best rotation in the majors in 2014, plus insurance in case Kershaw were to leave.
If this is the big move the Dodgers have been waiting to make, it will have been worth it.