The level of uncertainty surrounding Japanese ace Masahiro Tanaka, considered by far the best free agent pitcher this offseason, continues to confound the entire baseball industry, from the agents trying to represent him to the teams wanting to sign him to the system that will determine where he ultimately lands.
All parties agree on only one thing: Tanaka is going to be the most expensive import in baseball history.
The status of the 25-year-old right-hander, who went 24-0 with a 1.27 ERA this season for the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles, remains in flux largely because of the expiration of the posting-system agreement used to transfer players from Nippon Professional Baseball to Major League Baseball. Sources from both leagues told Yahoo Sports progress has been slow because MLB wants to lessen the amount of money going to the player's team in Japan while NPB seeks proper recompense for losing its best players. The posting fee gives the winning MLB team the exclusive right to negotiate with a player; if they cannot strike a deal, the fee is returned from the NPB team to the MLB team and the player heads back to Japan.
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Though posting usually opens today with blind bids on eligible players, haggling over the agreement continues and will delay it, sources told Yahoo Sports. With free agency opening Tuesday, the uncertainty over Tanaka could clog the market, especially with almost every big-money team planning to bid on him. The Yankees, Dodgers, Cubs and Giants, among many others, covet Tanaka, and their presence isn't likely to scare away other teams suddenly flush with cash from the league's new national TV deal, mushrooming local TV revenues and the runaway success of MLB Advanced Media.
Because of the money as well as other incentives in bidding for Tanaka – he does not cost teams a draft pick, like a free agent who receives a qualifying offer, nor would the posting fee count against MLB's luxury tax, a deterrent for a team such as the Yankees trying to reach a $189 million payroll – sources said no matter what the system, they expect the winning bid on Tanaka to well exceed the record $51.7 million the Texas Rangers spent for Yu Darvish.
A high-ranking National League executive posited the posting fee alone could reach $100 million, not a fantastical proposition – other executives guessed somewhere in the $75 million range – but one that may fall victim to proposed systems in which MLB teams would funnel less money via the posting fee in an effort to get more to the player.
One proposal suggested the team that places the winning bid would not fork over that price. Instead, it would find a number between the highest and second-highest bids – one source said it was halfway, while another involved in the negotiations said it was somewhere near halfway – and award the player to the team with the highest bid for that discounted price. With Darvish, for example, the Rangers bid nearly $20 million more than the next-highest offer – a bid, it turns out, that in concert with his $56 million contract seems like an absolute bargain for a 27-year-old expected to finish high in American League Cy Young voting this season.
The total outlay for Tanaka could easily top $125 million, even if most scouts and executives do not see the 6-foot-2, 200-pounder having Darvish's top-five-starter-in-baseball ceiling. With a fastball that sits around 92 mph and a split-fingered fastball that some consider the best in the world, Tanaka's repertoire certainly should play in the major leagues. The extremely weak class of free agent pitchers – the five best, in some order, are one-year-deal candidates Hiroki Kuroda and Bartolo Colon, the erratic Ubaldo Jimenez, and inconsistent Matt Garza and Ervin Santana – works in Tanaka's favor, as does Darvish's success, which helps teams forget about the epic failures of Daisuke Matsuzaka and Kei Igawa.
Just how much money contract negotiations bear for Tanaka is drawing intense speculation, too, considering his representation status is unclear. Agents who have recruited him told Yahoo Sports that Rakuten has almost isolated Tanaka during its playoff run, and that a club official who speaks English has served as a buffer. Those in the sweepstakes for Tanaka said his timetable for picking an agent is unclear – and that they fear he may already have a deal with one worked out that he'll announce after the season, when he makes the posting official.
While it may be in Tanaka's interest to wait until a more player-friendly posting system arrives, the risk of injuries to pitchers, the awful market for starters and Rakuten's eagerness to receive its windfall make the posting a near-certainty, sources said. Tanaka does not reach free agency until after the 2015 season thanks to Japan's nine-year reserve, which marries a player to the team that drafted him for nearly a decade.
In his seven seasons, Tanaka is 99-35 with a 2.30 ERA and a 1,238-to-275 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 1,315 innings. His unblemished record this year set a record for consecutive wins in professional baseball. He last lost a game Aug. 19, 2012, and his final start of the season Saturday comes in a potential Japan Series-clinching game.