Mariners Suddenly Possible Tanaka Favorite

Jeff Sullivan · January 2, 2014 at 8:48 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

At first, it was all about other teams. At first, people wondered why the Mariners hadn’t even been connected yet. The Yankees were thought to be the initial frontrunner for Masahiro Tanaka. Then there was talk that the Cubs would be all-in, that they wouldn’t be out-bid. The Angels were thrown in the mix, the Dodgers were thrown in the mix, and the Diamondbacks made no secret of their interest. There was a pool of favorites, then there was everybody else, and the Mariners looked like a part of everybody else. That is, according to the reports that were floated.

Talk of the Mariners picked up toward the end of December. Now January has vaulted the Mariners to the front. Jayson Stark says executives believe the M’s are the team to watch. And Ben Badler has the Mariners as his favorite, and Badler’s a smart guy who knows what’s up and who knows who to talk to. No longer are we waiting for the Mariners to get linked. Now they’re very much at least in the discussion. So what’s changed?

Basically nothing. Basically nothing has changed. Hell, Tanaka’s agent is supposedly still on a family vacation. It’s not that the Mariners are suddenly a legitimate candidate. It’s that they’ve been a legitimate candidate the whole time.

People think of Tanaka as a free agent, but he’s a unique free agent in two ways. One, there’s the matter of the $20 million posting fee. Two, there’s the matter of the January 24 signing deadline. Draft picks have faced signing deadlines, but not free agents, so this is a different sort of position. Really, there’s no reason for Tanaka to sign before then, if he’s looking to maximize his US contract. There’s no way the league’s letting him go back to Japan, and Tanaka is so much more appealing than the domestic free agents that he has most of the leverage. Come January 24, teams will have to have made their absolute best offers, and while Tanaka could conceivably sign before then, the likelihood is that he waits until the home stretch. That’s the desperation hour, and it’s not like Tanaka cares about delaying the markets for Ubaldo Jimenez, Matt Garza, and Ervin Santana.

Because Tanaka probably won’t sign for a few weeks, and because it’s been the soft holiday shutdown in the States, there’s been little meaningful activity in the market. Not much reason for a team to start sprinting. Some teams have presumably checked in, but it’s not like there are real offers on the table. Teams are now analyzing Tanaka in earnest. Or building off the analysis they’ve already done to prepare a sales pitch. Teams know if they’re in and they know if they’re out. Beyond that, the race has hardly begun. Nothing about the Mariners’ particular position has changed.

It’s just that people are looking at them differently now. They’re seeing what’s been obvious all along. The Mariners want to add a front-of-the-rotation starting pitcher. That’s no secret. They’ve had success in the past with Japanese players. That’s no secret. They have money to spend, and a certain sense of urgency, or desperation if you want to be less flattering about it. That’s no secret. Calm, patient teams don’t guarantee a decade to Robinson Cano. Ever since Cano was signed, it made perfect sense that the Mariners would be in hard on Tanaka. Hard enough to compete with the more major players. Their position hasn’t changed; people are just coming to understand it. The team wants to make another splash.

What we haven’t heard is talk out of Mariners camp, and we’re not going to, until after the Tanaka sweepstakes has completed. That’s not the way Jack Zduriencik operates. What we’re hearing is basically that the Mariners are a logical fit, and that other teams see them as a threat since they’re clearly willing to spend aggressively. Everybody has a point they won’t spend beyond. Teams like the Yankees and Cubs have more money than the Mariners do. But the Mariners might only need to end up kind of close. Who knows? Tanaka’s Japanese, and he’s been a teammate of Hisashi Iwakuma’s. That matters or it doesn’t and we don’t have a clue. We probably shouldn’t generalize about all Japanese baseball players, since every last person on this planet is a pretty little snowflake.

There was a point at which Tanaka looked like he could be a relative bargain. Now, I’m actually not really sure. The danger here is tunnel vision, that it’s Tanaka or bust. That’s never the case, with any player, and Tanaka does have real downside, especially as the potential contract terms escalate. There is some point at which it would be smarter to turn instead to the free agents. I don’t know where that point is, but it exists and the free agents are all pretty good. All these guys have their questions marks, and though Tanaka’s the youngest, how much does pitcher age matter, really, especially given Tanaka’s workload? Would you want Tanaka at seven years and $150 million, or Ubaldo Jimenez at something in the vicinity of half of that? What if Tanaka goes to eight years? Nine years? How much value do you put in his mysteriousness, when at the end of the day he’ll be worth one or two or three or four or five wins, more or less? What’s the real difference, now and down the road, between Tanaka and the alternatives?

I don’t have the answers, because I don’t even really know what Tanaka is. But these are the questions that every team faces, at least every team planning to make a run for it. I love the idea of Masahiro Tanaka on the Mariners, I love it very much, but it does get silly at some point. It does get too risky at some point. In so many ways, this is going to be fascinating, and this sweepstakes is entirely unprecedented. The Mariners will be deeply involved.

But that’s been clear for, what, a month? About time that people see it. I don’t know what they were thinking before. Pair money with urgency and anything’s possible.


35 Responses to “Mariners Suddenly Possible Tanaka Favorite”

  1. mebpenguin on January 2nd, 2014 9:00 pm

    You’re last point is a good one because I think it’s an open question whether 6/140 for Tanaka will turn out better than 4/50 for Jimenez.

  2. killeverything on January 2nd, 2014 9:40 pm

    I’ve been thinking the M’s have a helluva lot better chance to sign Tanaka than the majority give them credit for. I have no way to actually know this, I’m just basing it on reasons previously stated.

    Sure there’s risk, you want a Yu and you get a Dice K. I still think it’s exciting and the first time in a long time ( since he was first hired actually ) I’m not swearing at the roster Z has put together yet.

    Really though all of you have to admit seeing Yankee fans lose their minds if he chose Seattle instead is worth the posting price alone.

  3. MarioMangler on January 2nd, 2014 9:40 pm

    I have believed that the Mariners were the favorites since day one, and I was just waiting until the mainstream media (or at least the non east coast media) started coming around to admitting that. It seems to me that, for obvious reasons, any Japanese superstar who comes to the U.S. has to go through Seattle first. If the Mariners really really want him, they will get him. Same as it has been for all the big Japanese names. The road for all the Japanese players probably has to start with Seattle.

    This isn’t to say that Seattle will wind up getting Tanaka, it is really going to come down to how much do they want him. If they really really want him, I have to imagine it doesn’t make a frog’s fat a– worth of difference how much New York or Chicago or Anaheim is going to throw at him. If the team that put Japanese baseball on the map in the U.S. wants to make him their next superstar, I have to imagine it is going to happen.

    Whether Seattle winds up getting him in the end or not, all I can hope for in the next few weeks is a lot of whining from the east coast media. Who seem to be honestly surprised that we even have baseball teams out here on the west coast at all. Yes we do. And we have uniforms and everything! It’s really neat.

  4. Lefebvre Believer on January 2nd, 2014 11:07 pm

    If you’re going to go all in and overspend, Tanaka and Cano are pretty good guys to go all in on. Yeah there’s an X factor with Tanaka, but the success of Darvish and Iwakuma makes that X perhaps a bit less mysterious.

  5. Pete Livengood on January 3rd, 2014 1:59 am

    You’re asking all the right questions, Jeff. None of us have the answers, just the questions. I know if it were *me* in charge, the threshold might get crossed pretty soon. Especially with so much money riding on Cano. It just depends…but if Santana or Garza or Jiminez is roughly half the annual salary, for half the total number of years committed, I get less and less committed to the high risk/high reward Tanaka represents, mostly because I perceive the risk to be relatively much higher than the reward, relative to those guys. Tanaka potentially flopping sets this franchise back in ways that the others just don’t (even if they suck), especially if Cano declines earlier than most expect.

    The decision on Tanaka is truly an “all in” moment for this front office. I’m not sure how comfortable I am with this particular front office, with all its foibles and vulnerabilities, making that call….

  6. maqman on January 3rd, 2014 3:21 am

    I’ve been high on Tanaka for longer than most and am okay with the M’s spending whatever they can afford to get him. Playing in a pitchers park they need plus pitching to survive. I wouldn’t make them the favorite though, they will have to out-bid the Yankees for a player that they have publicly stated they want. The non-monetary factors are hard to know, although Japanese media indicates that Tanaka enjoys the spotlight. The fact that he married a singer/actress/idol four years his senior seems to confirm this. The bright lights of Broadway and LA could be alluring. He was a workout buddy of Darvish and they both supposedly have BFF tattoos and he played five years with Iwakuma for the Golden Eagles. How much does that count? Who knows, likewise the Japanese status system of deference to their elders may or may not come into play with Iwakuma and Darvish. Could the Nintendo connection come into play in a way outsiders can’t recognize? It does certainly add spice to the back end of the off-season. It’s a baseball soap opera.

  7. vertigoman on January 3rd, 2014 6:22 am

    It’s kind of funny how the supposed price keeps going up. Everything including “front runner” and signing price is pure speculation at this point.
    The market rate for a young but unproven phenom is 6/60. Granted that’s not an open market but is Tanaka really going to triple that in kind of an open market? I agree that would be absurd. Tanaka is only the best thing out of japan since the last best thing out of Japan. Before Darvish it was Dice-K.
    Tanaka isn’t one or the other but those two are nice bookends.

  8. ChrisFB on January 3rd, 2014 7:25 am

    Mostly reasonable question: Why not approach Garza, Santana and/or Jimenez right now and try to ‘buy them out’? I’m not sure the market has to be completely stalled if someone does some pretty good guesses mathematically and arrives at years-and-dollars that sound like what one of them would get post-Tanaka.

    Mostly silly way to run with that: Say you assemble all the money that would go to Tanaka in one blockbuster, crazy-pants deal. Call it $180 million. Divide that 3 ways, then quietly approach Garza, Santana and Jimenez right now and point out that they a) deserve more respect than to be the consolation prize to a loser of the Tanaka sweepstakes and b) are not likely to see a better deal than 4/60 even from panicked teams.

    Even sillier: As soon as all 3 of them sign, extend Kuma two extra years and immediately trade Walker, Erasmo, Franklin and Smoak to the Marlins for Stanton. Ta-da! Playoffs for the next 4 years!

    Rotation: Felix/Kuma/Garza/Santana/Jimenez
    Lineup: Miller/Seager/Stanton (RF)/Cano/Zunino/Condor (CF)/Hart (DH)/LoMo (1b)/Ackley (LF)
    Bullpen: Who gives a s***, it’s a bullpen, Z whips one up from thanksgiving leftovers and fairy dust every spring.

  9. Mekias on January 3rd, 2014 7:36 am

    While its nice to be linked with Tanaka, I still don’t think Seattle are the favorites. I’d put us behind the Yankees & the Dodgers. I just have a suspicion that Tanaka (and his famous wife) will want to be in either LA or New York.

    I’ve said before that I’d rather give 4/60 to Jimenez than something like 7/140 (+20 mill fee) for Tanaka. Any risk we avoid by getting Tanaka at 25 is erased by the long-term, big-money contract. My feeling is that Tanaka will be a 3-3.5 WAR/yr player and, as such, I can’t see giving him almost Felix type money.

    When we gave Felix that money at 26 years old, he was a proven and durable superstar. Even so, we got a clause in the contract saying if he missed significant time with an elbow injury, we’d get an extra year at 1 mill. Would Tanaka accept something like that with so many suitors?

  10. californiamariner on January 3rd, 2014 10:21 am

    Chris, big dreams you have there haha

    Sign me up for 6 years of Tanaka at 120-130. If it takes more than that, you have to start thinking about Jimenez at a more reasonable deal. Jimenez would be my preferred choice of the 3 MLB free agents.

  11. Westside guy on January 3rd, 2014 10:23 am

    That matters or it doesn’t and we don’t have a clue.

    This actually could’ve been a VERY short article… 😉

  12. Rockstar on January 3rd, 2014 10:53 am

    Theoretically, the M’s could sign Tanaka at $20m per year, and still have plenty of payroll room to sign a second SP for $15 (Jimenez?), sign a backup catcher (Buck), and still have plenty of resources/payroll room to trade for a Colby Rasmus type. This would put their 2014 payroll somewhere close to $118m, similar to their 2008 payroll. They clearly have significantly more revenue coming in now with the two new TV deals (national and RSN). Having a lower payroll for some arbitrary reason should not be acceptable to any fan or media type, especially if there are talented players with which to pay that money (i.e. don’t waste it on a Nelson Cruz type player).

  13. stevemotivateir on January 3rd, 2014 11:13 am

    Regardless of their chances with Tanaka, I wanna see them land another starter. I wanna see Smoak go away as well, so any temptation to play Morrison or Hart in RF disappears. Not having Smoak in the lineup is a pleasant thought, alone.

    Curious who’ll be brought in to backup Zunino as well. Also curious if the outfield shopping is done.

    What I hope for and what we’ll see are likely two different things, though.

  14. thehemogoblin on January 3rd, 2014 12:07 pm

    The best reason I’ve found to root for signing Tanaka (that doesn’t involve watching Tanaka play) is that maybe the cost will keep the Mariners from being able to afford Nelson Cruz!

    One can always hope, right?

  15. TumwaterMike on January 3rd, 2014 12:52 pm

    If we sign Tanaka, all I see is that we still need a catcher and bullpen help. I don’t think we need another starter after that.

    King Felix
    The Machine

    we also have Rameriz, Mauer and Beavan in the wings. Just my thought.

  16. amnizu on January 3rd, 2014 2:11 pm

    Gotta agree with Steve on this, the outfield is the next pressing need after one starting pitcher. Especially if that pitcher hovers around the mid to high 30s in fly ball percentage like Jimenez. I really don’t want to watch Hart trying to run routes in RF next year.

  17. stevemotivateir on January 3rd, 2014 7:21 pm

    Eh, writing half asleep = bad writing.

    I would like to see the M’s add two starting pitchers. If they land Tanaka, great, but I want more. Gimme gimme gimme!

  18. G-Man on January 3rd, 2014 9:22 pm

    Will he be Darvish or will he be Dice-K? That is the question.

    Felix + Tanaka + Cano = lots of eggs in high-rent baskets 5-6 years out.

    I do like the idea of getting the second tier guys like Garza.

  19. gwangung on January 3rd, 2014 9:47 pm

    Will he be Darvish or will he be Dice-K? That is the question.

    No, the question is will he be like Iwakuma. That’s the pitcher coming over from the Japanese leagues that he’s most similar to in repertoire and strengths.

    And, really, having lots of eggs in a few baskets is a natural occurrence—because that’s how the talent generally gets distributed if you don’t grow your own.

  20. stevemotivateir on January 4th, 2014 6:52 am


    I don’t disagree with you, but I don’t know if I’d label Garza as a second tier pitcher. He’s proven himself in MLB. Tanaka has yet to do so.

    I’d be quite thrilled if the M’s landed Garza and Capuano.

  21. californiamariner on January 4th, 2014 10:46 am

    Dice K was 3.8 and 3.4 Fangraphs WAR in his first two seasons. Then, he had a lot of injury problems. I think it’s overblown how much of a failure he was. He even threw in 2.5 WAR in 2010 when he got to 150 innings.

  22. kinickers77 on January 4th, 2014 11:10 am

    I think it’s presumptuous to say we all should have seen this coming for at least a month already. The Mariners have a history of thinking they’ve done “enough” in the offseason to be competitive but clearly coming up way short. I wouldn’t have been surprised if the M’s played up Cano, Hart, Morrison and a couple Joe-Saunders-like lame starter signings to be the “answer” to competitiveness this year. That would be a very Mariner thing to do.

  23. killeverything on January 4th, 2014 1:22 pm

    @ Californiamariner, I think the “hate” Matsuzaka gets is because of his performance compared to his price and expectations. A fastball/curve pitcher with poor control ( and confidence ) isn’t going to be much more than a #3. They have the resources, but all in all that was poor scouting on Epstein and the FO.

    He was sold as the next ace with a Darvish-like pitch arsenal. Remember his gyro ball ( just a hard slider )? Certainly Dice wasn’t as horrible as he’s been accused of, but if Tanaka has a success rate that parallels his then the signing’s a bust IMO.

    I teeter totter on if I think they should go all in on Tanaka. Right now I think the reward outweighs the risk. So I hope they get him.

  24. Eastside Suds on January 5th, 2014 8:12 pm

    These catchers available still. Sucre is the backup if we don’t make a move. Personally, John Buck would be the only one I’d be interested in now. Wanted Suzuki!!

    John Buck
    Jose Molina
    Kelly Shoppach
    Koyie Hill
    Rob Johnson
    Taylor Teagarden
    Yorvit Torrealba

  25. TumwaterMike on January 5th, 2014 8:34 pm

    The Mets don’t want Buck. I don’t know what that means but that’s one less team to deal with. We have an overabundance of back of the rotation pitchers (see Beavan, Maurer, Rameriz, Noesi). Maybe we can package them to someone for a bakup catcher.

  26. gopilots70 on January 5th, 2014 10:36 pm

    I’d like to see the M’s go after Jose Lobaton of Tampa Bay. He earned a 1.4 WAR in 300 plus ABs and had a 110 wRC against righties. Would be a good spell for Zunino against some RHs. And he is a switch hitter. He is currently listed as their minor league catcher after the acquisition of Hanigan. Didn’t do too bad defensively last year either.

  27. msfanmike on January 6th, 2014 11:53 am


    How do you feel about Humberto Quintero, instead?
    Yeah, that’s kinda what I thought ………

    From the ‘very meh’ department: The Mariners signed Quintero today.

  28. Eastside Suds on January 6th, 2014 12:05 pm

    Yuck! Only a minor league/ST invite. Bargain basement yard sale reject. They must totally hate Sucre. Hope it’s because they are saving every penny to win the Tanaka sweepstakes.

  29. joel_rosenbaum on January 6th, 2014 12:26 pm

    Tanaka or no, I wonder if the Mariners would be interested in someone like Ryan Dempster, whom the Red Sox have been making loudly available for some time now.

    He’s nothing to get too excited about, but any deal would involve the Red Sox eating half his salary and taking back a C-level prospect. Dempster can cover the back end of the rotation and provide 1-2 WAR in the process, making him a better-than-even money bet to outperform $/WAR any of the free agents available.

  30. NorahW on January 6th, 2014 1:44 pm

    I just read on MLB Trade Rumors that Ken Rosenthal reports that the M’s will need to persuade ownership before they make any more big signings.

  31. Eastside Suds on January 6th, 2014 4:56 pm

    You mean…as in signing the jewel of Japan? Nintendo needs to sell some more Game Cubes and Wii’s. C’mon boys!!!! BTW….Rosenthal doesn’t know shit about the Mariners. No one does.

  32. Westside guy on January 6th, 2014 6:38 pm

    Zunino really should be given a. Stint in AAA to learn how to hit – but we all knew he wasn’t going down after he was brought up.

  33. greenwood ave on January 6th, 2014 10:32 pm

    Seemingly in the minority, I’m not sure that spending nine figures is really the best investment to make on any pitcher, short of Felix Hernandez. His workload is a concerning, and I think like a lot of their non-Japanese counterparts, Japanese pitchers are not immune from shoulder/elbow problems. It feels like this kind of a contract could hamstring the organization in the not too distant future…

  34. stevemotivateir on January 7th, 2014 4:20 pm


    The added argument will be that he’ll stimulate the Japanese fan base–and there’s probably truth in that.

    I don’t care that much if they land him or not, as long as they end up with solid starting options 1-5.

  35. gag harbor on January 12th, 2014 10:36 pm

    Sometimes the most obvious answers are right in front of our eyes…

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