Tanaka posting a gift to MLB pitching market

Masahiro Tanaka (Toru Takahashi/AP)

TORONTO – A starting pitching market largely plagued by inertia this off-season may soon shoot to life with word that Japanese sensation Masahiro Tanaka will be put up for post by the Rakuten Golden Eagles.

The dramatic Christmas Day decision was delivered by club president Yozo Tachibana during a news conference Wednesday, according to reports out of Japan. And it certainly changes the game for the many teams, including the Toronto Blue Jays, who are on the hunt for elite arms, not to mention the other premium starters still available.

While Tanaka is far less proven than Matt Garza, Ervin Santana and Ubaldo Jimenez – the three free-agent headliners – plus David Price and Jeff Samardzija – available for the right price on the trade market – some industry insiders believe he may become the most sought after pitcher of all.

As one executive put it during the winter meetings earlier this month – if a team has money to spend on one pitcher this off-season, Tanaka is the guy to spend it on. During the 2013 season, he went 24-0 with a 1.27 ERA and 183 strikeouts in 212 innings in helping the Golden Eagles win their first ever title.

More teams may end up involved in the bidding for Tanaka than for previous Japanese players as a result of the new posting system agreed to Dec. 16 by Major League Baseball and Nippon Professional Baseball.

Japanese clubs can set a posting fee of up to $20 million, and all big-league teams willing to pay it can negotiate with the player. Tanaka’s post is sure to be for the full $20 million and once set, a 30-day period for interested parties to work out a contract begins.

Industry speculation has Tanaka fetching a deal worth up to $100 million, which the agents for Garza, Santana and Jimenez will surely use to bolster the price for their clients, and potentially inflate the already significant demands of teams with a starter to trade.

A possible flip side to that scenario may be that the extra supply matches demand and somewhat reduces the competition, causing prices for the others to flat-line. But that may also be wishful thinking of executives hoping to find a January bargain.

How things play out from here will be fascinating to watch.

Big-money players such as the New York Yankees, Los Angeles Dodgers, Chicago Cubs and Texas Rangers (who already have Yu Darvish, landed with a $51.7 million posting bid under the old system) are considered likely candidates to take a hard run at Tanaka.

The Blue Jays, who made only a protective bid for Darvish in the event his market collapsed, may well throw their hat into the ring but it’s unclear if they have the resources to fend off their rivals.

During the winter meetings, when asked about the possibility of pursuing Tanaka, GM Alex Anthopoulos said: “We wouldn’t get specific, but I would say that any good starter we’ll definitely talk about seriously as far as being involved. I’m not one to come out and say we’re going after so and so, but I think it’s safe to say any good starter that’s out there we’re going to be active, we’ll try to be involved and see if it makes sense for us.”

The Blue Jays have scouted Tanaka, although Anthopoulos didn’t make a trip to Japan the way he did to see Darvish during the 2011 season, but have also been doing lots of prep work on the other available pitchers.
New catcher Dioner Navarro has been grilled about Garza, whom he’s caught both in Tampa Bay years ago and the Cubs last season, while Jeff Samardzija, another Chicago pitcher, remains a trade target if the asking price comes down. Santana and Jimenez have been looked into, as well.

What that means is unclear, as the Blue Jays have made noise about standing pat with what they have too.

But the insertion of Tanaka into the mix should be the catalyst needed to get the pitching market moving, and while it may take some time before things get going, a chain reaction is at long last coming.

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