News broke late Tuesday that Masahiro Tanaka is coming to major league baseball from the NPB via the new posting system. The way it works is very complicated, but easy enough to explain. Teams have to bid on the right to negotiate with him and the maximum bid is $20 million that will be paid to his NPB team if he decides to come to the states. Basically, every team will bid $20 million because there’s really no harm in it at all. If they bid $20 million and they only offer him the league minimum, he’ll sign somewhere else and there’s absolutely no cost to any team who doesn’t sign him.
Since this is a Tigers site, let’s explore the extent to which the team can offer Tanaka a contract beyond the $20 million fee. It’s unlikely that the Tigers can outbid the Yankees and Dodgers, but let’s just think about it quickly.
The Tigers payroll before arbitration and league minimum guys is about $120 million for 2014 and my rough estimation puts the final number at about $150 million if they don’t make any other significant moves. That leaves them almost no flexibility with this season’s payroll, but there is no reason to think they couldn’t backload a deal with Tanaka. Presumably he won’t care about when he gets paid.
If you factor in the post-2014 Scherzer savings in conjunction with Hunter and Martinez coming off the books, and then you take away the raise to Verlander and additional arbitration dollars, the Tigers can probably find $18 to $20 million in 2015 if they fill the rest of the holes cheaply. After 2015, they have Porcello, Cabrera, Nathan, Davis, Avila, etc coming off the books, so there are all kinds of options and could easily pay him whatever he wants in terms of payroll availability. Reports suggest he’ll get around 6 years, $120 million, but that’s an imprecise estimate. The Tigers could make that work, if they load it 5/15/25/25/25/25, but it would definitely affect their ability to lock up other players, so it’s a very clear trade-off.
I honestly don’t have a clear idea if he’s worth it. He’s been very successful in Japan – 1300+ innings, 2.30 ERA, 4.5 to 1 K/BB ratio, but that doesn’t always translate cleanly. Darvish has been great, Dice-K wasn’t. It’s hard to compare a guy against that competition when we’ve seen very few of his league-mates come over. That said, he just turned 25. Great players don’t reach free agency that young very often. If you’re going to give a guy a big deal, it should be for his late 20s and not his early 30s. I’d rather sign Tanaka long term than Scherzer, but I’m not sure that it’s a direct trade off. And I’d rather pay Fister than Tanaka, but that ship has sailed.
It’s very unlikely that the Tigers will sign Tanaka given the competition, but it’s worth thinking about given that the Tigers will at least be placing a bid. After that, who knows? A potential #2 starter hitting the market at 25 isn’t something you can ignore.