As rotation options continue to come off the board in free agency — albeit at a slow pace — Masahiro Tanaka remains one of the market’s top unsigned options. With Corey Kluber set to join the Yankees’ rotation, MLB Network’s Jon Heyman tweets that although Tanaka and the Yanks are still in touch, there’s a “good chance” he’ll be pitching elsewhere in 2021. Recently, according to SNY’s Andy Martino, Tanaka has been seeking a one-year deal worth $15MM or more.
Heyman said on MLB Network today (video link) that Tanaka and the Yankees had discussed a two-year deal, although at this point that wouldn’t be possible without exceeding the luxury tax limit. Kluber’s $11MM deal and the $15MM annual value on DJ LeMahieu’s six-year deal bring the Yankees within just a few million dollars of the $210MM luxury barrier, which the Yankees reportedly hope to avoid. The moment Kluber agreed to terms, a new landing spot for Tanaka appeared to be in the cards (barring a change of heart from the Yankees on the tax line).
Tanaka himself recently indicated that a return to his native Japan wasn’t out of the question, and Heyman suggests that there’s “strong interest” from teams in Nippon Professional Baseball, where he may find a larger deal than in North America. Martino tweeted late last week that several around the industry view a return to Japan to be increasingly likely for Tanaka.
At the outset of free agency, a two- or even three-year deal for Tanaka, a steady workhorse in the Yankees’ rotation, appeared to be within reach. Multi-year deals for starting pitchers have been virtually nonexistent to this point, however. Mike Minor’s two-year, $18MM contract with the Royals is the lone multi-year deal that has been signed by an established starting pitcher so far this offseason. Japanese righty Kohei Arihara (Rangers) and former Mets righty Chris Flexen (Mariners) both signed small two-year arrangements, but those were speculative low-cost fliers based on their work overseas — not the type a known commodity with Tanaka’s track record would seek.
If Tanaka is indeed seeking a one-year pact at the aforementioned annual rate, it’s hard to blame him. After all, Kluber secured $11MM despite pitching just 36 1/3 innings in 2019-20 combined. Drew Smyly turned five starts with the Giants last year into his own $11MM guarantee. Charlie Morton, five years older than Tanaka, commanded a $15MM sum on a one-year deal even though he spent nearly a month of last year’s shortened schedule on the injured list due to shoulder troubles.
The 32-year-old Tanaka missed his first two starts of the 2020 season due to a concussion sustained when he was hit by a comebacker during Summer Camp, but he went on to make 10 starts for the Yankees with a 3.56 ERA and 4.07 SIERA. The UCL tear that Tanaka sustained early in his MLB career but rehabbed without Tommy John surgery continues to loom over him, but at this point it’s hard to question his durability. From 2016-19, the righty averaged 30 starts per season and six innings per start.
Outside the Yankees, interest in Tanaka hasn’t been widely reported on, though he’s surely fielded interest. The Padres were said last week to have considered Tanaka, and any team that missed on Kluber could certainly look to Tanaka as an alternative. A one-year deal would be nice way to keep his options open, but it doesn’t appear out of the question that Tanaka could command a more lucrative contract in NPB — not after Tomoyuki Sugano agreed to a four-year, $40MM deal with opt-outs after each season.