Mariners Suddenly Possible Tanaka Favorite
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.