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Masahiro Tanaka Rumors
Though he's yet to throw a pitch in the Major Leagues, the Yankees committed a massive $175MM to sign 25-year-old righty Masahiro Tanaka in January. $20MM of that went to his old team, the Rakuten Golden Eagles, with $155MM going to Tanaka. Tanaka's contract is the third-largest ever for a pitcher in MLB history, topped only by Clayton Kershaw's new extension with the Dodgers and C.C. Sabathia's 2008 free agent deal with the Yankees. Like those deals, Tanaka's includes an opt-out clause.
Tanaka comes to MLB for the 2014 season after posting what many scouts refer to as "video game numbers" in Japan last year: a 24-0 record and a 1.27 ERA in 212 innings. Last Friday, Yankees GM Brian Cashman did his best to temper expectations for Tanaka in a conversation with ESPN's Ian O'Connor. Cashman said he expects the pitcher to have growing pains in the States, and asked his ultimate upside two or three years down the road, the GM said Tanaka "has the potential to be a really solid consistent number three starter." Free agent salaries continue to rise, but I don't think the Yankees would spend that kind of money on a pitcher they thought might become a number three a year or two before his opt-out clause comes up.
Unbiased opinions were needed. To get a feel for Tanaka's repertoire and approach, injury risk, and overall ability, I spoke to high-ranking officials with scouting-related positions for four MLB teams (referred to simply as "scouts" later in this article). Each has seen the pitcher in person extensively, and none work for the Yankees.
Before we begin, here is a refresher on the 20-80 (or 2-8) scouting scale from Kevin Goldstein, formerly of Baseball Prospectus: "A score of 50 is major-league average, 60 is above-average (also referred to as "plus"), and 70 is among the best ("plus-plus"). 80 is top of the charts, and not a score that gets thrown around liberally." For more information on scouting pitchers from Goldstein, click here.
Scouting Report: Three Plus Pitches
Tanaka's fastball typically sits between 91-93 miles per hour, with the ability to touch 96 mph. Most of the scouts to whom I spoke graded his fastball as a 6, or plus, though one put a 70 on the heater. One scout praised his fastball in saying he throws a "heavy ball," though two others noted the pitch can get flat or straight at times. One of those two said Tanaka's fastball is "probably his most hittable pitch, in a way."
Scouts agreed Tanaka has a second or third gear for his fastball. In Japan he'd often be in "cruise control" for the first half of the game, ramping his fastball up into the mid-90s later if he needed to. Noted one scout who loves Tanaka, "When they're in Japan, they don't have to throw their best stuff because the league's not as good." That figures to change for Tanaka in MLB, given the deeper lineups.
Tanaka clearly had plus-plus control in Japan, with walk rates below two per nine innings in each of the last four seasons. Scouts feel that will translate to plus in the States. Grading Tanaka's command, one scout said "60 or 70," another went with 55, and one gave a 5. The most pessimistic scout elaborated, "I actually thought with the offspeed stuff, the splitter and the slider especially, I thought there was more command of those pitches. And I thought with the fastball he definitely threw strikes to an above average level but I thought the command, pinpointing it, was just average." When Tanaka does get into trouble in MLB, there's a good chance it will be the result of throwing hittable fastballs.
Next is Tanaka's splitter, by most accounts a nasty pitch. One scout put an 8 on it, suggesting if you don't put an 8 on this particular pitch, then you might be the type who never gives out 8s. He explained, "It's not a tumbling pitch. It's more of a disappearing fastball. It's not a Contreras splitter that comes out and kind of flutters." Two others put 7s on the splitter, though one dissented with a 6. That person admitted the split "could be plus-plus," but unlike his peers, he feels Tanaka's best pitch is his slider.
The lone scout who prefers the slider explained, "I think it's a true slider with a good tilt, he would get depth to it more than ones that are plus-plus." He feels the slider has a slight lead over the splitter, noting the slider has been Tanaka's pitch since his high school days. With the other scouts, Tanaka's slider received a 6 across the board.
It is generally agreed that Tanaka's fastball, splitter, and slider are plus pitches, and he'll get strikeouts with each. For a change of pace, he also throws a slow curveball, described by one scout as "useful." This pitch grades in the 45-50 range. Tanaka's ability to throw this pitch for strikes allows him to pitch backward if he chooses. Typically, though, Tanaka's approach is aggressive, as one scout explained: "He pitches inside, he doesn't pitch away from contact a lot. Some guys in Japan, they're not as aggressive. He has more of a Western style that he's not afraid to go up and in, he's not afraid to pitch inside. He pitches kind of with a little chip on his shoulder."
Reduced Strikeout Rate: Red Flag?
Though he posted a 1.27 ERA, Tanaka struck out only 7.8 batters per nine innings last year in Japan. That mark was his lowest since 2010. While one scout admitted, "It's certainly not a positive," all agreed the reduced strikeout rate is not a cause for concern. Explained another, "He's the type of guy that if he wants to, he can go out and strike out hitters. He's a brilliant, smart pitcher and he's not afraid to pitch to contact. I saw him doing that a lot that last couple years. That's one of the reasons he was able to stay efficient with his pitch counts." Throw in MLB lineups that are much more prone to swinging and missing, and there's good reason to believe Tanaka will whiff more than 7.8 per nine in 2014.
Heavy Workload: Cause For Concern?
In December, multiple MLB executives expressed concern to Yahoo's Jeff Passan regarding Tanaka's high pitch counts. The righty averaged about 110 pitches per regular season start in 2013, with seven outings in excess of 122 and a high of 136. Most famously, Tanaka threw 160 pitches in a Japan Series game and another 15 the next day in relief. In total, he threw 1,315 innings through his age-24 season, which hasn't happened in the Majors since the mid-70s, according to SI's Tom Verducci. Perhaps the GMs and owners calling the shots were worried about Tanaka's high pitch counts, but most of the scouts we talked to brushed it off.
"He's been trained for that his entire life," remarked one. Another noted his durable, solid body and suggested he's someone who might be able to handle throwing a lot of pitches. One scout noted that while it's obviously not a great idea to throw 160 pitches in a game, Japanese pitchers typically get six or seven days rest between starts, making the total mileage similar to MLB starters. None of the four feel that Tanaka's injury risk exceeds that of a typical MLB starter. Keep in mind, however, that the chance of going on the disabled list for the average MLB starter is around 39% for 2014, based on research from Jeff Zimmerman for FanGraphs.
Tanaka's Overall Projection
In a tweet last month, Joel Sherman of the New York Post said the comparables he's heard most often for Tanaka are Hiroki Kuroda and prime-age Dan Haren, plus reliever Bryan Harvey for his splitter. One scout agreed with the Haren comp, noting that Tanaka has more arm strength. Others cited Zack Greinke and Matt Cain.
In terms of placing an overall grade on Tanaka, opinions ranged, but all were quite positive. One scout, who admitted being "toward the higher end of the spectrum," described Tanaka as a number one starter, without hesitation. He expects Tanaka to contend for the Cy Young, and feels he'll be one of the ten best starting pitchers in MLB in 2014.
The other three scouts placed Tanaka in a slightly lower tier, ranking him in the #15-25 range among all MLB starters for 2014. Two of them described him as a number two starter.
The mystery of how Tanaka will perform in Major League Baseball should be resolved in short order. He'll face MLB hitters in Spring Training later this month, and could have a bit of a soft landing with the Yankees' first three regular season games coming in Houston in early April.
The Diamondbacks didn't ultimately land Masahiro Tanaka, but the club feels that Paul Goldschmidt significantly helped their pursuit of the Japanese ace, Jules Tompkins of ArizonaSports.com reports. When the Diamondbacks met with Tanaka, they brought Goldschmidt along. "It was very interesting to watch the interaction between Tanaka and Goldy, it was very clear — even though the language barrier was there — that Tanaka was impressed that he was there," says Diamondbacks executive Ken Kendrick. "And he asked him several questions through the interpreter about our club and about Arizona." Here are more notes from around baseball.
- Dodgers manager Don Mattingly appreciates the confidence the organization showed in giving him a three-year contract, writes MLB.com's Barry M. Bloom. "The organization has shown confidence," Mattingly says. "I think it says that to fans, it says that to me and more importantly it says that to the players. It lets them know that we feel like this guy can do the job." Mattingly notes that one thing his contract doesn't give him is security — compared to the Dodgers' enormous payroll, Mattingly's contract is "a drop in the bucket," so if they feel the need to fire him, the contract likely won't constrain them.
- In addition to the obvious cultural differences, Tanaka will have to adjust to a number of other factors as he prepares for his debut with the Yankees, Anthony McCarron of New York Daily News writes. That includes the size of the ball and the textures of the mounds, as well as more power-centric opposing lineups.
Current Cubs president of baseball operations and former Red Sox GM Theo Epstein covered a range of subjects in a fascinating interview on WEEI's Hot Stove Show on Thursday (audio link; transcript). In addition to discussing the two clubs he has headed from a baseball ops perspective, Epstein emphasized the impact of changes to the CBA. The new system has both reduced teams' abilities to reap draft picks from outgoing free agents, Epstein said, and made it difficult to pay for hard-to-sign talent in later draft rounds. Here's more from around the league, including other notable talking points from Epstein:
- Discussing his current club's reported pursuit of Masahiro Tanaka, Epstein noted that the pitcher likely cost the Yankees more in real terms than the team's $175MM contract and release fee commitment, once the collective bargaining tax is accounted for. The signing, said Epstein, "reflects the dynamic that there are many, many teams with lots and lots of dollars to spend and very few places to spend them, very few players who represent sound investments for the dollars."
- "There are lots of teams demanding talented, prime-age players, and supply is really a trickle," Epstein continued. "Fewer and fewer players of that ilk are reaching free agency. … You're going to see these prices that cause people to shake heads. … Because of the TV deals, the teams that have them have a lot of money and not a lot of attractive players to spend the money on." Indeed, as I explored earlier tonight, some teams' desires to use free cash to enhance the value of their player assets (i.e., control and contract rights) could result in increasingly robust contracts for some younger players that remain years away from free agency.
- One player that seems suitable for an attractive, long-term investment is Yoenis Cespedes of the Athletics. Fresh on the heels of today's extension of teammate Coco Crisp, Cespedes said that he, too, hopes to ink a new pact, tweets John Shea of the San Francisco Chronicle. The 28-year-old slugger, who still has two years remaining on the deal he signed out of Cuba, said that he hopes to play for the A's for his entire career. Of course, given his relative youth, upside, and high profile, Cespedes figures to command a much higher price than the $22.75MM over two years just given to Crisp. It remains to be seen whether the A's will be willing to dangle a sufficient guarantee to get a deal done.
- Turning back to the aforementioned Tanaka, Yankees GM Brian Cashman told ESPN Radio today (via ESPNNewYork.com's Andrew Marchand) that the club views its new acquisition as "a really solid, consistent number three starter." Cashman noted that, though the club scouted Tanaka extensively, uncertainty remains as to how he will transition to the big leagues. "If we get more than that," Cashman said, "all the better. He's got a great deal of ability."
- Two arbitration hearings took place today, after none occurred last year. Andrew Cashner of the Padres and Vinnie Pestano of the Indians both made their cases to their respective panels. Cashner and the Padres are quite close in filing numbers ($2.4MM against $2.275MM), while Pestano ($1.45MM) and the Indians ($975K) left a larger absolute and relative sum to chance.
- Glancing in at MLBTR's Arbitration Tracker, 16 cases remain unsettled as hearings begin to take place. By my count, just over $23MM remains at stake between the player filings ($79.325MM total) and team counters ($56.15MM). Only the Indians, with Justin Masterson, Michael Brantley, and Josh Tomlin (in addition to Pestano), have more than one outstanding arbitration case.
In his latest column over at FOXSports.com, Ken Rosenthal reports that the Diamondbacks' pursuit of top free agents Masahiro Tanaka, Shin-Soo Choo and Carlos Beltran stemmed from the fact they'll soon be completing a new television deal with FOX Sports that will be worth at least $90MM per season for a span of 15 to 20 years (beginning in 2016). He notes that while comparing TV deals is difficult because of differing equity stakes negotiated by each team, but the contract should still top the Rangers' recent TV deal, which pays them $80MM per season. More highlights from Rosenthal…
- The Cubs' offer to Masahiro Tanaka did not include an opt-out clause, according to Rosenthal. Knowing that they might not compete until 2016, the Cubs were wary of including a clause that would allow him to opt out shortly after their next competitive club hit the field.
- Their recent signing of Matt Garza will allow the Brewers to move trade acquisition Will Smith (received in exchange for Norichika Aoki) to the bullpen. Milwaukee could still add another reliever this offseason, but they also want to take a look at Rule 5 lefty Wei-Chung Wang.
- After missing out on a Major League deal with the Orioles due to concerns over his back, Tyler Colvin is weighing a number of minor league offers.
- The Marlins and Rockies are both interested in former Reds right-hander Nick Masset, who has missed each of the past two seasons due to shoulder injuries.
After an offseason highlighted by the signing of Robinson Cano, the Mariners may be done adding high-priced talent, MLB.com's Greg Johns reports. GM Jack Zduriencik is looking for another starting pitcher, but probably won't want to pay the prices necessary to sign Ubaldo Jimenez or Ervin Santana.
"I don't think we're going to jump in and invest where some of these dollars are going," Zduriencik says. "It just doesn't make sense when you take a 30-, 31-, 32-year old pitcher that wants five or six years and there is some history there of injury or inconsistencies."
Zduriencik said those risks were the reason the Mariners didn't strongly pursue Masahiro Tanaka (who is younger, but would have required a long commitment). He also suggests that it would have been difficult to outbid the Yankees. "We've made two major investments here in the last two years with Felix [Hernandez] and now Robinson," Zduriencik says. "To do that again would have been real challenging. And in the end, the numbers could have gone up. If we made that offer, who knows what the heck the Yankees would have done after that?"
Johns notes that the Mariners are "in the running" for starter Scott Baker, who missed all of 2012 and most of 2013 due to injury. Zduriencik also says the Mariners have had many talks with Nelson Cruz's representation, but the length and dollar value of the contract and the threat of losing a draft pick are all part of the Mariners' considerations.
In today's column, Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe checks in with GMs, players, writers, and scouts to help run down the best coaches in baseball. On his list of bench coaches who are managers in waiting: Brad Mills of the Indians, Torey Luvullo of the Red Sox, Larry Bowa of the Phillies, Tim Flannery of the Giants, and the Brewers' Jerry Narron. More from today's column..
- The Pirates probably won’t go after a pitcher if A.J. Burnett retires. Right now, Pittsburgh is looking for a full-time first baseman and would use the money that would have gone to the veteran toward that end. Cafardo also notes that the Orioles could be a "wild card" in the situation since Burnett lives in Baltimore.
- While the bids of the other teams are still unknown, one GM threw out the following figures in the Masahiro Tanaka sweepstakes: Yankees $155MM, Cubs $120MM, Diamondbacks $120MM, Dodgers $119MM, White Sox $100MM, Astros $100MM.
- The Diamondbacks were head over heels for Tanaka, but the fact they weren’t on one of the coasts and they were in a smaller media market worked against them.
- Scott Boras doesn't represent David Ortiz, but he tells Cafardo that he feels for them. Boras sees some similarities between the Red Sox star and his own client Kendrys Morales. Morales is seen by most clubs as a DH rather than a first baseman which is hurting his value. Boras argues that Ortiz is the featured power hitter in Boston's lineup as a DH and believes that Morales can also provide value in that role.
- There had been some talk that Daisuke Matsuzaka might go back to Japan to pitch, but the possibility of breaking into the Mets’ rotation with Matt Harvey out intrigued Matsuzaka enough to fight for a spot.
- The Giants have been through a lot with Pablo Sandoval and even if he has a good season, this could be Pablo Sandoval's last in San Francisco. Sandoval will be a free agent following the 2014 season.
Full Story | Comments | Categories: A.J. Burnett | Arizona Diamondbacks | Boston Red Sox | Chicago Cubs | Chicago White Sox | Cleveland Indians | Daisuke Matsuzaka | Houston Astros | Kendrys Morales | Los Angeles Dodgers | Masahiro Tanaka | Milwaukee Brewers | New York Mets | New York Yankees | Philadelphia Phillies | Pittsburgh Pirates | San Francisco Giants
After a poor 2013 season and an underwhelming offseason, Phillies GM Ruben Amaro Jr. understands the criticism coming his way, ESPN's Jerry Crasnick writes. "People say, 'Don't you think you feel like you've built up equity? You guys had so many years of success.' I'm like, 'Not here in Philadelphia, my friend.' It doesn't work like that here," Amaro says. "We may have had one year of a pass, but our job is to try to get ourselves to the point where we're back again contending. Quickly." Here are more notes from the East divisions.
- Nationals GM Mike Rizzo hasn't made many phone calls recently, but he's still looking for ways to make his team better heading into spring training, MASNsports' Dan Kolko writes. Rizzo confirms that the Nationals were interested in Grant Balfour, but Balfour liked the proximity of the Rays to his home in Clearwater (Twitter links). Despite losing out on Balfour, the Nationals may not pursue another reliever, Adam Kilgore of the Washington Post tweets. A backup catcher, however, could still be a possibility, tweets MLB.com's Bill Ladson.
- With Masahiro Tanaka, Hiroki Kuroda and Ichiro Suzuki, the 2014 Yankees will have more Japanese star power than any Major League team ever, writes FOX Sports' Jon Morosi. Kuroda, in particular, could be especially helpful as Tanaka adapts to U.S. baseball.
ESPN's Jerry Crasnick offers an outstanding look at the ramifications of Masahiro Tanaka's seven-year, $155MM contract with the Yankees. According to Crasnick, Diamondbacks GM Kevin Towers did not hide his disappointment at the result in a conference call, but also said he didn't feel the process was flawed: "We don't feel cheated whatsoever. We don't feel as if we weren't provided the same opportunities as the Yankees. They just had a better offer, and that's where he chose to go. You move on." Here are some additonal highlights…
- Pirates president Frank Coonelly told Crasnick that he was surprised the media made him out as someone fighting for the rights of all small-market teams for suggesting the posting fee for Japanese players be subject to the luxury tax. "The posting fee, by definition, is part of the cost of signing a player," said Coonelly. "I've always believed it should be considered part of a club's payroll for competitive balance tax purposes. I wasn't speaking on behalf of small market clubs. I was simply speaking on behalf of one of 30 major-league clubs."
- One anonymous Major League executive told Crasnick that the new posting system completely goes against everything the league has done to keep the cost of player acquisition under control (e.g. draft slotting, capping international spending, the luxury tax). Said the executive: "This is antithetical to everything the teams have tried to do over the last 20 years. So why did they do it? They did it to target the Yankees and Dodgers, because everybody knew they would be interested in Tanaka. The idea of having a $20 million posting fee to allow other teams to compete was ridiculous."
- That same executive contended that the new posting system will help drive up the prices for Matt Garza, Ubaldo Jimenez, Ervin Santana and future free agent starters. Coonelly completely disagreed: "Mr. Tanaka's contract may be a good comparable for the next outstanding young 25-year-old professional pitcher who comes over for Japan after a 24-0 season. I can't see him being much of a comparable for anybody else."
- Crasnick also looks at the challenges that lie ahead in the international market, with one baseball official noting that should the next version of the posting system restructure the posting fee, it could lead to Japanese teams essentially selling players to MLB rather than trying to build competitive teams. Beyond that, Crasnick tackles the difference in how Latin American and Japanese free agents are treated by MLB. The entire article is well worth the read.
Jeff Sullivan of Fangraphs took a stab at evaluating Grady Sizemore, who signed yesterday with the Red Sox, but ultimately concludes that there is too much uncertainty to make a projection reasonable. Here are some more notes on Sizemore and another notable signing from yesterday:
- The Reds offered a big league deal to Grady Sizemore and expected to land him, tweets Mark Sheldon of MLB.com. "He changed his mind," GM Walt Jocketty told Sheldon.
- Discussing his decision to sign with the Yankees, Masahiro Tanaka expressed excitement with joining the game's most historically prominent club, the Associated Press reports (via the New York Times; video available via MLB.com). "They gave me the highest evaluation and are a world famous team," said Tanaka, who said his goal is to win a World Series in pinstripes.
- One oft-mentioned concern with Tanaka was his heavy usage in Japan. Patrick Newman of NPB Tracker posted Tanaka's actual pitch counts from last season, which he found in an Isao Chiba article from Shukan Baseball. Last year, the hurler threw 2,981 pitches over over 211 innings in 27 starts, or 109.7 pitches per start last year. (He also threw one inning in relief.) For reference, Clayton Kershaw — who is less than a year older than Tanaka — has exceeded 3,000 pitches in each of the last five seasons (last year, 3,428) while averaging around 104 to 105 pitches per start in his last four campaigns.
- The Cubs' final offer to Masahiro Tanaka was for six years and $120MM, a source tells Patrick Mooney of CSNChicago.com (Twitter link). That amount does not include the $20MM release fee.
- Chicago was competitive in terms of years and dollars, a source tells David Kaplan of CSN Chicago and WGN Radio (Twitter link), but the Cubs refused to include an opt-out after four years. That position certainly seems to make sense from the perspective of the rebuilding Cubs, especially, since much of the allure of Tanaka is in his ability to deliver value at the back end of his contract.
Jon Rauch is close to signing with a team, MLBTR's Zach Links reports (Twitter link). The 35-year-old posted a 7.56 ERA in 16 2/3 IP with the Marlins last season and also made 10 appearances for the Orioles' Triple-A affiliate after signing a minor league contract with the O's in June. Despite his outlier of a 2013 season, Rauch has been a solid right-handed bullpen arm for much of his career, posting a 3.65 ERA, 2.79 K/BB and 7.2 K/9 over 549 2/3 IP from 2004-2012.
Here's some more news as we wrap up a busy Wednesday around baseball…
- The Braves only offered Eric O'Flaherty a one-year contract to remain with the team, David O'Brien of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports (via Twitter). Though O'Flaherty underwent Tommy John surgery last May and will miss at least part of the 2014 season, he still scored a two-year, $7MM deal from the A's earlier today.
- Yuniesky Betancourt will decide on his new club within the week, MLB Daily Dish's Chris Cotillo reports (Twitter link). Betancourt was drawing interest from several teams, potentially even as a starter.
- Also from Cotillo, there is "strong interest" in right-hander Todd Coffey. At least nine of the 14 teams who attended Coffey's throwing session last week want to see his second session. Coffey is looking to return to action after missing all of 2013 recovering from Tommy John surgery.
- Much of the Indians' success at the plate last season was due to their lineup flexibility and use of bench players, a trait that MLB.com's Anthony Castrovince believes could be somewhat difficult to duplicate in 2014, though Carlos Santana's proposed attempt to play third base would be a great help in that department.
- The Twins didn't have any interest in Grady Sizemore this winter, though the club checked in on him last summer, 1500 ESPN's Darren Wolfson reports (via Twitter).
- "Another issue with a physical does nothing to enhance the Orioles' reputation in the industry, which is taking a two-fisted beating this winter," Roch Kubatko of MASNsports.com writes in regards to the news that Baltimore's agreement with Tyler Colvin has been delayed due to a problem with the outfielder's physical. Kubatko wonders if the O's could be trying to get Colvin to sign a minor league contract instead of a Major League deal, as the club did last offseason when it wasn't satisifed with Jair Jurrjens' physical.
- The Phillies liked Masahiro Tanaka and engaged in "cursory negotiations" with his representatives, but GM Ruben Amaro told Matt Gelb of the Philadelphia Inquirer that the team wasn't prepared to go beyond five years to sign the Japanese righty. The Phillies seem likely to go into 2014 with their current pitching options, as they only would've exceeded their payroll limitations for "an exception" like Tanaka.