By now you’ve probably heard his name, but if not, get ready to hear it a lot in the coming days/weeks/months. Masahiro Tanaka. He’s the 25 year-old Japanese pitcher who many are comparing to a second coming of Texas Rangers ace Yu Darvish. Tanaka, if posted, likely represents the best starting pitcher on the free agent market in a fairly thin class this winter. Could the Houston Astros, who are in desperate need of a front line starter and have money to spend, be a potential player in signing the young pitcher? Let’s look at some of the obstacles they’ll face.
First, and perhaps most importantly, it’s really anyone’s guess as to whether Tanaka will even be posted by his parent club, the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles. Under current Nippon Pro Baseball free agency rules, Japanese players have two free agency groups: “Domestic,” meaning signing among teams in the NPB, and “International,” which is what typically applies to players wanting to play in the MLB. A player can become a domestic free agent after seven to eight years or become an international free agent after nine. Tanaka, who has already spent seven years in the NPB, can be posted by his parent club now, but he is at Rakuten’s (or another other NPB team’s) mercy until those nine seasons have been fulfilled. That’s important here because of what happened one month ago.
In November 2013, the Rakuten Golden Eagles shocked the Japanese baseball establishment by winning their first ever Japan Series title over the vaunted Yomiuri Giants. Masahiro Tanaka was brilliant, posting a 1.27 ERA over 212 IP with a perfect 24-0 record during the regular this season. In addition to the series trophy, he took home a Sawamura award (the Japanese equivalent of the Cy Young award) for his pitching efforts. Rakuten, no doubt seeing the value in their ace, may be more focused on trying to replicate their success in 2014 versus selling now and having to fill that void on the less-than-robust Japanese free agent market for the upcoming season.
Another disadvantage to Rakuten is that they’d be forced to accept a reduced $20 million posting fee for Tanaka. Even though that amount would likely pay for the team’s entire 2014 payroll (and then some), it might not be enough to sway parent company Rakuten, which is quite successful in Japan as the #1 online good retailer, and CEO Hiroshi Mikitani, who according to Forbes sports a net worth of $6.4 billion. Long story short: Rakuten is not hurting for the money the way that other NPB teams are.
But, just for fun, let’s assume the cards align and that Tanaka is posted. That $20 million posting fee means that it’s possible a lot more MLB teams might be interested than when it was assumed Tanaka’s fee might be somewhere in the $50-75 million range earlier this year. The Yankees have already expressed interest and there’s no doubt that the deep pockets of the L.A. Dodgers could also be in play. And those are just the teams we do know about. Could ten MLB teams make a bid? Could twenty? Without the posting fee going against a team’s luxury tax, and without a team having to forfeit a high draft pick to sign an international free agent, there’s no doubt that the competition will be intense for Tanaka’s services.
By now, we’re assuming that the Astros are at least going to agree on the $20 million fee. The next obstacle is actually putting up the money to sign Masahiro Tanaka. Let’s look at his closest comp, Yu Darvish, and see what he received in 2012:
Nippon Ham received a posting fee of $51.7 million from the Texas Rangers for exclusive negotiating rights. The Texas Rangers then paid Darvish a six year, $60 million contract. All together, Texas spent $111.7 million.
That’s important here because Tanaka’s agent will, most likely, be looking for something similar to the total value of Darvish’s contract. With a lower posting fee of $20 million this year, a winning contract might look something like $90-95 million over six years. That works out to around $15-16 million a year. The last Astros player to make anywhere remotely close to that amount was Carlos Lee, who was paid $19 million in 2012. Is a rebuilding club like Houston ready to make that sort of financial commitment again and could they even afford it with CSN Houston not generating any revenue?
At this point, a couple of things need to go right. Rakuten has to post Tanaka (which is no guarantee at this point) and Houston has to be aggressive enough to be the top bidder amongst a throng of other interest teams. But there’s one other issue we haven’t looked at yet and that’s whether Masahiro Tanaka even wants to play for the Houston Astros. A few things we know:
1) Houston has lost 100+ games each of the past few seasons and isn’t predicted to be a .500 team for 2014.
2) Houston isn’t a well-known destination for international free agents. The first (and last) Japanese player to play for the Astros was Kazuo Matsui from 2008 to 2010 and that was an absolute disaster of a contract for both the player and team.
3) Houston does not have any other Japanese players on the team nor does Houston have a large Japanese population the way other large American markets (e.g. L.A., San Francisco, and New York) do.
The point of this exercise is to show that, while in theory, signing Tanaka would be possible, the Astros have a lot of obstacles to overcome in order to do so. (And that’s even assuming that Rakuten posts Tanaka in the first place.) Eventually, I do think Houston will be at a place to where they can draw top international talent. A dedication to winning and an increasing payroll will help to prove that. But right now I wouldn’t hold my breath that this will be that year that happens. Masahiro Tanaka will be playing somewhere in 2014, but it’s unlikely to be for the Houston Astros.