Throwing $140 Million at Masahiro Tanaka Would Be Bust in the Making

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Throwing $140 Million at Masahiro Tanaka Would Be Bust in the Making
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Even though we are still waiting for Masahiro Tanaka to sign a contract with a Major League Baseball team, it's becoming clear that obtaining his services will cost a vast fortune.

According to Daryl Van Schouwen of the Chicago Sun-Times, indications are Tanaka's price tag could hit $140 million. 

That is a far cry from where we were on December 27, shortly after Tanaka was posted by Rakuten, when Bob Nightengale of USA Today reported that it would cost at least $17 million per season to sign the Japanese star.

Combining these two reports would seem to indicate that Tanaka could be looking at a seven- or eight-year deal. That is an insane amount of years and dollars to commit to a player who has never thrown a pitch in an MLB game.

It's not clear if that $140 million total includes the $20 million posting fee, which could make the total price near $160 million, but since that can be paid out in two installments, according to Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports, that may not be a sticking point for interested teams.

Looking at things from a glass-half-full perspective, signing Tanaka for seven or eight years wouldn't necessarily carry the same amount of risk as a typical MLB free agent because he's just 25 years old. 

With the exception of Clayton Kershaw, who is on track to hit free agency after the 2014 season at the age of 26, most of the top-flight pitchers will be on the open market between the ages of 29-31. 

It's also not likely to cripple the signing team financially, since the two favorites for Tanaka's services appear to be the New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers, according to David Waldstein of the New York Times. It's a hefty commitment to have on the books if things don't turn out as planned. 

Consensus in Japan right now is that Yankees and Dodgers are favorites on Tanaka and word is his wife prefers to be on West Coast.

That's about where the positives for a deal like this would end. Once you start digging into the finances and comparisons, there is nowhere for Tanaka to go but down.

No one should feel sorry for Tanaka potentially getting that amount of money, especially since it says more about the market for pitching right now rather than his ability, but it does open the door for more intense scrutiny.

For instance, here is a list of pitchers in MLB history who have signed contracts worth at least $140 million. 

Justin Verlander, Detroit Tigers $180 million (2013-19)
Felix Hernandez, Seattle Mariners $175 million (2013-19)
CC Sabathia, New York Yankees $161 million (2009-15)
Zack Greinke, Los Angeles Dodgers $147 million (2013-18)
Cole Hamels, Philadelphia Phillies $144 million (2013-18)

For those keeping track at home, the accolades on that list include four Cy Young awards (Verlander, Hernandez, Sabathia, Greinke), two LCS MVP awards (Sabathia and Hamels), one Most Valuable Player award (Verlander) and one World Series MVP award (Hamels). 

In other words, those five pitchers have been regarded, at some point in their careers, among the very best in the sport and had long track records of success at the time they signed their contracts. (That list will increase by at least one whenever Clayton Kershaw signs his next contract.)

Tanaka, on the other hand, has pitched seven seasons in Japan.

Baseball in Japan is played at a high level, but it's not MLB-caliber. They play a different style, with a lot of small ball, and pitchers can get away with nibbling in ways they can't against big league competition. 

That's not to say Tanaka's stuff won't play in the majors. He has a tremendous forkball and good velocity on the fastball, but it's also straight and can be elevated by hitters because he has an extreme crouch in his delivery that prohibits downhill plane.

There is also the matter of Tanaka's workload in Japan. He may be 25 years old, but there is a lot of mileage on that right arm. 

Sports Illustrated's Tom Verducci wrote about Tanaka's high innings total (1,315) at such a young age, pointing out that only three MLB pitchers since 1961 have thrown as many innings as the Japanese star through their age-24 season: Frank Tanana, Larry Dierker and Bert Blyleven.

Blyleven turned into a Hall of Famer, but as Verducci points out, Tanana suffered shoulder problems and never made an All-Star team once he turned 25 after making three straight from 1976 to 1978. Larry Dierker was done pitching at the age of 30 in 1977.

Times have changed. Different workouts and training regimens can help mitigate some stress pitchers put on their arms. But given the always-volatile nature of free agents, does that warrant Tanaka possibly being one of the six highest-paid pitchers in the history of MLB?

Again, it speaks to how much teams value pitching right now. Tanaka, based on these reports, is going to be paid like an ace whom you can throw in Game 1 of the World Series. But when you go over scouting reports, the best ones call him a solid No. 2 and others think he's a No. 3. 

I'm naturally conservative when it comes to giving pitchers long-term deals anyway, but when I see Tanaka's strikeouts per nine innings and strikeout-to-walk ratios have dropped the last two years in Japan, it gives me more concern about how much gas is left in the tank.

Masahiro Tanaka Japan Stats, 2011-13
Season IP K K/9 IP K/BB
2011 226.1 241 9.6 8.93
2012 173.0 169 8.8 8.89
2013 212.0 183 7.8 5.72

Baseball Reference

There are two other problems that I see with a team potentially giving Tanaka $140 million. The first is what I like to call "Alex Rodriguez Syndrome."

Ignoring everything that Rodriguez is going through right now, nothing he did when he was playing at a high level would ever be good enough because all fans and analysts saw was the $275 million contract he signed in 2008, or the $252 million deal before that. 

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Any athlete, regardless of who they are, making such a vast sum of money is going to be put under the most intense microscope possible. Peyton Manning is as good as any quarterback in the history of the NFL, but combine his huge salary with the fact he "only" has one championship, and suddenly everything else he's done isn't good enough. 

Tanaka would have to deal with being paid like an elite pitcher AND, moving into the second problem, being compared to fellow Japanese pitcher Yu Darvish

One reason that Tanaka actually stands to make so much money, whether or not it's $140 million, is because of Darvish's performance in two years with Texas. If he was coming over right after Daisuke Matsuzaka proved to be a bust, I would guarantee these salary numbers getting thrown around wouldn't be that high.

There are differences between Darvish's and Tanaka's negotiations. The new Japan-MLB posting system is designed to get every team bidding on a pitcher, which is going to drive prices up. Darvish was limited to negotiating only with Texas after the Rangers' bid $51.7 million. 

As good as Tanaka can be, there's nothing in his repertoire or body that suggests he will even come close to being Darvish.

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
Masahiro Tanaka should send Yu Darvish a nice gift once he signs his MLB contract.

Darvish is a freak of nature, standing at 6'5" and 225 pounds and posting strikeout numbers we haven't seen since Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez and Kerry Wood at the height of their powers. He's got the best pure stuff in baseball today and has finished in the top 10 of Cy Young voting in each of his first two seasons.

Yet every time Tanaka and Darvish pitch, there are going to be people who compare and contrast everything they do.

It's already started, with George King of the New York Post talking to a scout back in October who said that Tanaka is better than Darvish

He is better than Darvish because he is a strike thrower. Overall, Darvish’s stuff might be a little bit better, but this guy knows how to pitch. He is like Kuroda, he has a lot of guts. He throws four pitches but when it gets to [stone]-cutting time, it’s fastball and splitter.

Maybe Tanaka will be better than Darvish, but you know what? Darvish is making a total of $41 million through 2017. That's a spectacular bargain, especially when you see the numbers being thrown around for Tanaka.

Nothing that Tanaka does, short of winning at least one Cy Young award and a World Series, is going to be good enough because he has to deal with the high price tag and inevitable comparisons to Darvish and, for that matter, the criminally underrated Hiroki Kuroda

You can't blame Tanaka for taking advantage of the situation and exploiting the ridiculous lengths that MLB teams will go to for starting pitching, but a contract like the one being speculated isn't going to do him any favors, especially if it's in the intense New York or Los Angeles media market. 

 

Note: All stats courtesy of Baseball Reference. Contract information courtesy of Cot's Baseball Contracts. Video via Natsnation37.

If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter. 


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