Masahiro Tanaka, the pitching ace who went 24-0 this year as he led the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles to a Japan Series title, will be allowed to sign with a major-league team for the 2014 season, becoming the latest Japanese standout to get permission to leave for the United States before becoming a free agent.
The decision to let him go was announced by Rakuten officials, ending weeks of speculation about Tanaka’s immediate future and whether the team would back away from its initial stance he should continue pitching in Japan until after the 2015 season, when he would become free to go anywhere he wanted.
Instead, Rakuten relented and agreed to accept a $20 million posting fee from the major-league team that prevails in what is expected to be a high-priced bidding war among a number of teams.
“I’m grateful to the team (Rakuten) for allowing me to try. Now I’ve made a first step,” Tanaka said. “I hope I would receive offers from as many teams as possible so I have a wider option.”
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According to media reports, agent Casey Close will represent Tanaka in negotiations with major-league teams. The New York Yankees have a major need to bolster their starting rotation.
Other teams mentioned in speculation about possible suitors for Tanaka include the Los Angeles Dodgers, Boston Red Sox, Chicago Cubs, Atlanta Braves, Texas Rangers, Arizona Diamondbacks and the Mariners.
Any major-league franchise that wants to bid for Tanaka merely has to agree to pay Rakuten $20 million if it ultimately wins out, so there is little to discourage other teams — including those in relatively small markets — from jumping in and hoping for the best.
On the other hand, Tanaka’s multiyear contract could approach $100 million.
The 25-year-old right-hander, who had a 1.27 earned-run average this year, is expected to receive more money than what Japanese pitchers Daisuke Matsuzaka and Yu Darvish received when they joined the Red Sox and the Rangers.
Matsuzaka got a six-year, $52 million contract from the Red Sox in December 2006. Darvish received a six-year, $60 million contract from the Rangers that began in 2012. Both of those pitchers were signed under the old, unrestricted posting system in which only the team with the highest posting bid won the right to negotiate with the player. In each instance, the winning posts exceeded $50 million. That, in turn, limited how much the teams then wanted to pay Matsuzaka and Darvish.
Like Matsuzaka and Darvish, Tanaka has a good fastball and an assortment of other pitches. He has been durable, starting 20 or more games in each of his first seven seasons, and has a .739 winning percentage.
The Eagles made it clear they wanted Tanaka to stay — not just because they would lose their top pitcher so soon after winning their first title, but because they would receive far less for him than hoped under the new posting system. The Eagles were hoping to generate at least $50 million in compensation, about what Matsuzaka’s and Darvish’s teams got.
Any team willing to pay the release fee can negotiate with Tanaka during a 30-day window. There is no financial penalty for making a bid and failing to sign the player.
In letting him leave, Rakuten might have weighed the odds Tanaka will continue his mastery over batters in 2014 and beyond. It is unlikely he will ever have as dominant a season as he did in 2013; for one thing, he has thrown many innings the past few years. For instance, in the sixth game of the Japan Series this year, he threw 160 pitches and refused to come out of the game.
In the clinching seventh game, he appeared in relief. That sequence might give some major-league teams pause as they ponder how much they would be willing to offer Tanaka in a free-agent contract.
According to Sponichi, a Japanese sports publication, Rakuten might try to form a partnership with whatever team signs Tanaka. The Yomiuri Giants did that after their slugger, Hideki Matsui, signed with the Yankees before the 2003 season.
As dominant as Tanaka has been during his time with the Eagles, whom he joined after finishing high school, there is no guarantee he will fare as well in the United States. His fastball is unlikely to overpower major-league batters who routinely grapple with pitches nearing 100 mph.
Matsuzaka, who is 53-40 in the majors, and Darvish, who is 29-18 after two seasons in the United States, have had to adjust their pitching styles. Matsuzaka, in particular, encountered adversity after his first two seasons in Boston.
Japanese pitchers in the United States must throw baseballs that are slightly larger than those in Japan, and deal with umpires with different strike zones.
Japanese baseball fans are likely to continue rooting for Tanaka in the United States because they take pride in seeing their stars play overseas. But his departure is likely to stoke fears Japanese pro baseball is turning into a second-class product.
“They are becoming a feeder system for the MLB,” said Robert Whiting, who has written several books on Japanese baseball. “Japanese pro baseball has all but disappeared from prime-time network television.”