MLB Gets an Early Christmas Present

marc w · December 25, 2013 at 12:21 am · Filed Under Mariners 

As you’ve probably heard, Major League Baseball reached an agreement with the Japanese League and Japanese player’s association to fundamentally change the posting process. Instead of a closed auction, with teams bidding against each other to win exclusive rights to a player, the posting fee would be capped at a (ludicrously low) $20 million, meaning the Japanese player could negotiate with every team in MLB. This transferred a sizable chunk of leverage from clubs (both Japanese and American) to players; if this system had been in place when Yu Darvish was posted, it’s pretty easy to assume the ~$35m+ in posting fee over and above the new limit would’ve been tacked onto his contract.

So that’s a big change, and it’s interesting to see how this extremely closed market responds to the new incentives. But no one was interested in the microeconomics of cartels – they were interested in what it meant to the Rakuten Golden Eagles and their star hurler, Masahiro Tanaka. Tanaka famously went 24-0 last year with a 1.27 ERA. ERA is a misleading and odd stat, but Tanaka’s ERA was last above 2 in 2010. Some people can fluke their way into a low ERA for a season. Tanaka, on the other hand, has simply overmatched NPB for three years running.

The new rules made it somewhat less likely that Tanaka would be posted, because Rakuten’s expected haul from posting fees were artificially capped at somewhere between 1/2 and 1/3 of what the market would bear. While they could get $20m this year or next year, they could get the same payment AND have him play for the team next year and go for a repeat NPB title, sell extra tickets, etc. All of this led me to think they’d just hold onto him for a year and post him next year instead. So I was a bit surprised tonight to see that Rakuten decided to honor Tanaka’s wishes and post him now. They’d offered to make him the highest paid Japanese pitcher ever, but that would’ve earned Tanaka somewhere in the $8m range per year – MLB teams will happily pay him double that.

Many speculate that he’ll join Hiroki Kuroda in the Bronx, as the Yankees haven’t publicly been linked to the big domestic free agent starters like Matt Garza or Ubaldo Jimenez. But in reality, the entire market for starters has been at a standstill as teams waited to see what would happen with Tanaka. It’s not that the Yankees (or Dodgers) don’t care about, say, Garza, and only want Tanaka – it’s that Tanaka’s negotiations will go a long way to determining how teams are pricing solid free agent pitching.

So what does all of this mean to the Mariners? If nothing else, it means that the pitching market can actually start to move. It also means they can formulate their pitch to the soon-to-be 25 year old Tanaka. Moving from the auction system to something approximating actual free agency actually helps the M’s here – they probably couldn’t outspend the Dodgers or Yankees, especially when posting fees didn’t count against the luxury tax. While they still have to compete against them on total contract terms, the M’s can pitch perks like proximity to Japan, no state income taxes, and the opportunity to learn from both Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma. It’s not going to make the difference if New York’s offering an extra year and several million per, but it closes the gap, and allows the M’s to essentially punch above their weight class to some degree.

Will the revelations about the front office hurt? Do they outweigh the perks mentioned above? Probably not – it didn’t matter to Robinson Cano, and it wouldn’t matter to Tanaka. I’m no apologist for the FO, but getting Tanaka would be a coup, and would start to change the look of the suddenly very good AL West. It wouldn’t vault the M’s into the lead in projection systems, but it would fill a clear need and it would appear doable given their payroll situation. I’d still give the M’s extremely long odds to land Tanaka, but then, I said the same thing about Cano. Surprise us, M’s.

(Merry Christmas, by the way)


22 Responses to “MLB Gets an Early Christmas Present”

  1. Westside guy on December 25th, 2013 1:25 am

    Remember the turn of the millennium, when the AL west was the best division in baseball? I’d absolutely LOVE to see that again. I’d love to see Jack Z prove me wrong about him.

    BTW Merry Christmas guys!

  2. maqman on December 25th, 2013 1:31 am

    I say the M’s should go all in, whatever it takes. They have more payroll space than just about every team and he’s young enough to add years too. It would reiterate the message that the M’s are a team to be reckoned with and take a lot of heat off the front office. Safeco is a pitchers park and they have an absolute need for good pitching to be successful. He’s available Z, go fetch!

  3. Hutch on December 25th, 2013 2:04 am

    Starting to get a bad feeling in the pit of my stomach about this off season and a Tanaka signing is just about the only thing (barring a major trade for an impact OF) that gets me jazzed again. Too many red flags in the Garza/Santana/Jimenez trio. This is the only “go big or go home” move left that shouldn’t cripple the team.

  4. matthew on December 25th, 2013 2:17 am

    I’ll take Tanaka or nothing. Go all in, Z.

    Merry Christmas everyone.

  5. lesch2k on December 25th, 2013 5:54 am

    what does going all in mean. trade danny hultzen for albert pujols straight up with no money. pujols is clearly a better bet for 2014.

  6. Mekias on December 25th, 2013 6:03 am

    Once Tanaka made it clear that he wanted to leave, it put a lot of pressure on Rakuten’s owner. He obviously felt that he had been screwed by the new posting policy (and he had been) but Japanese players may have started avoiding the Golden Eagles if they kept Tanaka against his will.

    We don’t know much about where Tanaka wants to go or what his motivations are. I believe he did say he wanted to be on the West Coast. If so, I think the Dodgers would be in the best position with the Mariners and Angels right behind. Of course, money could always change that and it’s hard to know how much value Tanaka places on a winning team. Sometimes top tier players think any team they’re on will automatically be contenders.

    Given everything, I’d take the Mariners at about 1:5 odds on landing Tanaka. We have a better chance than most but there’s still too many variables and the bidding could be wide open. It’ll certainly be fascinating to watch.

  7. The Ancient Mariner on December 25th, 2013 7:50 am

    I hope we go all in on Tanaka as well; and there are noticeable financial advantages to Washington over California, so they don’t have to make the biggest offer in raw dollars to be the biggest in real value.

  8. ripperlv on December 25th, 2013 11:06 am

    Merry Christmas. Some team is going to be happy, maybe the M’s. I don’t think the speculators have the price correct. I believe that the timing is such that this guy is going to get 6/$126 million, whether he is worth it or not.

  9. maqman on December 25th, 2013 11:31 am

    It might take 8/$160M. The thing is if Price were a free agent now instead of on loan for two seasons what would he get by way of a contract? Now Price is MLB proven and a Cy Young Award winner, he’d get Felix/Verlander money, probably over $200M with all the money around now. The NPB is not the MLB, it’s sometimes referred to as the equal of AAA (ignoring the fact Japan beat the US in the World Classic twice) but if a AAA player had an ERA under 2 the past three seasons and had the AAA equivalent of two Cy Young Awards he’d probably be the top prospect in the country. His next season will be his age-25 season. A 7 or 8 year contract for him is safer than 10 for Cano or 7 was for Ellsbury or Choo and much more than any of the remaining free agent pitchers available. 8/$160M is a bargain in this market at this time.

  10. ck on December 25th, 2013 11:35 am

    If healthy, Tanaka Masahiro will be a great pitcher in MLB with several All-Star appearances. It would be fantastic if the M’s could sign him. Regardless of where he goes, the other free agent starters will get an artificial bump up in their demands. I don’t know if he is a friend of Iwakuma, but I hope he is. Tanaka is only 25 years old, and maybe he’ll sign with a team that already has a Japanese starting pitcher who would mentor him.

  11. Jamie M on December 25th, 2013 2:48 pm

    The bidding war for Tanaka should be fascinating theatre. If the Mariners somehow manage to snag him, 2014 will suddenly seem far more promising and take the heat off the front office which has been operating in FUBAR mode for far too long.

  12. RaoulDuke37 on December 25th, 2013 2:54 pm

    I want to hear Merry Christmas the Mariners signed him.

  13. ABP52380 on December 25th, 2013 3:19 pm

    Reading other sites, the foregone conclusion by Yankee fans that he’s as good as penciled into their rotation is disgusting. The fact that they are constantly able to sign the best talent because of income disparity is likewise disgusting. I don’t know if an NFL salary cap system is the proper way of going or not. I’m not necessarily advocating that either (as the owners of small teams, if their “genuinely” being hurt, you’d think THEY would be advocating such an issue….not a fan sitting on his couch on Christmas). My only hope is that the Yankees get screwed on this signing.

  14. Eastside Suds on December 25th, 2013 3:36 pm

    Make it 7/150, make Kuma his best buddy for 2014, show him how close we are to Japan and a large Asian population, have him attend a Seahawk playoff game and introduce him to Paul Allen. Remind him that California has an income tax, heavy traffic and smog. Basically, show him the love.

    Merry Christmas everyone!

  15. stevemotivateir on December 25th, 2013 3:46 pm

    Previously, the posting price likely had an affect on the contract. It’s probably fair to assume that he’ll receive a contract higher than what Darvish received, but how much?

    I don’t expect the M’s to land him. But how far would teams really be willing to go for him? Would the Yankees really risk getting stuck with the luxury tax if the cost to sign him pushed them that far? Would the Dodgers?

    I could see the Angels throwing their hat in, but really, I think he could end up about anywhere. It really doesn’t hurt anyone to try–M’s included. Maybe their odds aren’t as great as they seem?

    I’ll maintain a little hope. I’ll do the same for a durable outfielder being added.

  16. TumwaterMike on December 25th, 2013 4:36 pm

    Let him throw a fish at Pikes Place Market. That’ll do it.

  17. MrZDevotee on December 25th, 2013 4:54 pm

    Just let him hang out with Felix and Kuma… I can’t imagine anything being a bigger draw/influence than that. Felix is one of the biggest “homers” for Seattle and Kuma had a great first season– plus he’ll be able to tell Tanaka how easy the transition to American culture from the Far East is in Seattle.

    Close to the Pacific Rim, a great ballpark for pitchers, a history of highly successful Japanese players, the best cost of living of the West Coast markets– including no state income tax– what’s not to like?

  18. diderot on December 25th, 2013 11:06 pm

    For us to have a chance, I think three things have to occur:

    1) M’s put on the full court press (as they did with Cano)
    2) Tanaka decides that he prefers to play in Seattle
    3) M’s make a competitive (not necessarily largest) bid

    Those three things happen, and I think we have a very good chance.

    Any of those fails, and he’ll be pitching somewhere else.

  19. ChrisFB on December 25th, 2013 11:49 pm

    Never mind any Felix / Kuma stuff, or previous success with Japanese players, or any of that. By all rights, IMO the sales pitch to Tanaka should be some variation on the following:

    – If you succeed here as an individual, but the team still blows, you can get traded to a contender. No one will think lesser of you.
    – If you succeed here and are part of bringing championships to Seattle, you will be a legend.
    – If you fail here, no one will notice, because it will just be Seattle being Seattle.
    – And in all 3 of these scenarios, you will still make enough money to build a landbridge of $100 bills over the Pacific to walk from Seattle to Itami, Hyogo Japan whenever you like.

    Then it just becomes a matter of outspending anyone else around. The M’s could probably go as high as $20m, even $22m a year…

  20. Adam S on December 26th, 2013 12:10 am

    getting Tanaka would be a coup, and would start to change the look of the [division]. …it would fill a clear need and it would appear doable given their payroll situation. I’d still give the [team] extremely long odds to land Tanaka,
    Isn’t this true for 15-20 teams?

    A few teams don’t have the payroll left or never did (A’s, Rays, Marlins) to make a serious offer to Tanaka. A few teams may simply shy away from 5/90+ to a pitcher.

    But aren’t most teams in play for an elite, young talent — whether specifically linked to Tanaka or not — and by virtue of the number of competitors, every team has long odds?

    I don’t expect it, but even the Astros could jump in the mix with a 6-8 year deal planning to build around him in 2016-2018.

  21. Edgar Suzuki Jr. on December 26th, 2013 11:30 am

    Kuma pitched with him for a couple of seasons in Japan, perhaps that can mean something for the Ms…

  22. BackseatGM on December 26th, 2013 12:25 pm

    It would sure be nice of our 3-5 starters could “fluke” their way into a high ERA season next year. And maybe guys like Ackley, Saunders, and Smoak could fluke their way into high batting averages. Then we might just fluke our way into a successful season.

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