Under the old player-posting system between Major League Baseball and Nippon Professional Baseball, it was rare to see small-market MLB clubs bid on Japanese stars. You had the occasional case of a small-market team finding an underrated player that exceeded everyone's expectations (i.e. the Brewers' signing of Norichika Aoki) but for the most part, the biggest stars that came to North America from Japan usually ended up with richer MLB teams in recent years. Teams like the Yankees, Rangers and Red Sox were generally the only ones who could afford the ever-growing posting fees for Japan's best players, not to mention then being able to sign those players to lucrative contracts.
This issue was one of the reasons why MLB wanted a new deal with NPB, and thus the two leagues' new posting agreement was reached after weeks of negotiations. With posting fees for all players capped at $20MM, more than just the biggest markets are theoretically able to bid on top Japanese stars, such as this offseason's most influential available player, Rakuten Golden Eagles righty Masahiro Tanaka.
Of course, the demand for Tanaka's services has been so fierce that his eventual contract could approach the $100MM threshold, meaning that the usual big-market suspects are often cited as his likeliest suitors. The Yankees are widely known to covet Tanaka, with the Dodgers, Rangers, Angels, Diamondbacks, Cubs and Mariners also often cited as teams in the mix. I suspect that Tanaka's list of suitors will be much larger than just these clubs, however. I'm not talking about just the ever-popular "mystery team" or two — the list should, frankly, include almost every team in Major League Baseball.
If a team has scouted Tanaka and has legitimate questions about his ability to make the transition from NPB to North America, then that's obviously a fair reason to stay out of the Tanaka sweepstakes. If a team thinks Tanaka can pitch effectively in MLB and is simply shying away from bidding since they're in a rebuilding phase or thinks they can't afford his eventual contract, that seems like short-sighted thinking. As ESPN's Buster Olney tweets, "for a team to not indicate a willingness to pay a $20 million posting fee on Tanaka is like not running out a grounder; [it] costs nothing to try."
The Cubs' interest in Tanaka is the clearest argument against the "we're rebuilding" excuse. As recently detailed by ESPN Chicago's Jesse Rogers, Tanaka's age (25) makes him an attractive prospect for a Cubs team that isn't planning to contend for a couple more seasons, since Tanaka will still be in his prime by the time the Cubs expect to make a move in the NL Central. That same reasoning also makes Tanaka a realistic target for the Astros; The Houston Chronicle's Evan Drellich admits that the Astros may be a "long shot" to sign the Japanese right-hander, but they're still expected to check in on Tanaka. It's also worth noting that if Tanaka lives up to the hype and becomes an ace in MLB, a losing team's rebuilding process suddenly becomes much shorter.
The "we can't afford him" argument isn't as potent as it once was given how every team is receiving extra money from MLB's national TV contracts and many clubs are getting a boost from their own local TV deals. As we've seen over the last two years, all sorts of teams in all sorts of markets have made surprising financial expenditures to either lock up their own stars to big extensions or sign pricey free agents.
Would it really be so surprising if the Twins bid on Tanaka and pushed hard to sign him, given how that team has already been very aggressive in upgrading its pitching this winter? The Royals are known to be gunning for the playoffs in 2014 and could make a run at Tanaka as Ervin Santana's replacement. Maybe even the Pirates could capitalize on their revival last season and look to add Tanaka as the final piece of the puzzle to get the team back to the World Series. Even teams like the Cardinals or Red Sox who seemingly have pitching depth to spare could use their financial resources and reputations as quality franchises to sign Tanaka, and then further upgrade their rosters by trading their excess starters.
You could argue that bidding on Tanaka wouldn't be worth a small- or mid-market team's time since they're likely to get outbid by a big-market team…but you never know. Going into the winter, you wouldn't have thought that the Mariners would've been the ones to land Robinson Cano, and while the M's may have had to drastically outbid the Yankees to do it, they ended up one of the game's best players and a transformed franchise.
This is all good news for Casey Close, Tanaka's agent, as a crowded market will naturally drive up Tanaka's asking price. While there's still a very good chance Tanaka will be pitching for a big-market team in 2014, don't be surprised at all to see some unlikely clubs get heavily involved in the sweepstakes. MLBTR readers agree — of the six teams listed in a recent MLBTR poll as Tanaka's top suitors, the choice of "other" was second in the voting. It could've just been wishful thinking from readers hoping that their own favorite team can acquire a potential ace, or it could be a portent that the changes to the posting system will indeed level the playing field for more than just baseball's richest teams.