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Could Masahiro Tanaka be MLB’s Next Japanese Sensation?

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Could Masahiro Tanaka be MLB’s Next Japanese Sensation?

The young right-hander is expected to garner a $60 million posting fee.

Another Japanese export is headed to America, and this one might be a tad more expensive than average.

Masahiro Tanaka, a 24-year-old pitcher for the Rakuten Eagles in the Nippon Professional Baseball league, is widely expected to be the focus of a bidding war as soon as the current Japanese baseball season is over. Several Major League Baseball clubs are clamoring for his services and it’s easy to see why.

Tanaka completed a historic regular season in which he went 24-0 with a 1.27 ERA, and even earned a save coming out of the bullpen. He led the upstart Eagles to their first Pacific League championship. They will face the storied Yomiuri Giants in the Japan Series, which begins Friday.

When the series wraps up – it could last until November 3 – the posting process may commence. In short, Tanaka’s home club can make him available and initiate a bidding war among the richest MLB teams. The highest bidder then pays the Eagles a fee for exclusive rights to negotiate a deal with Tanaka.

Two years ago, the Texas Rangers set a record with a $51.7 million posting fee for All-Star pitcher Yu Darvish. The amount for Tanaka is expected to top that at around $60 million.

“He has great control and has an uncanny ability to get out of jams,” an MLB scout told The Diplomat on condition of anonymity. “He may have a bit more upside than Darvish. He can throw four different pitches, but his slider and his splitter are his best. He doesn’t seem to ever struggle with his command – and that’s a big plus.”

At least five MLB teams have scouted him and reportedly have shown interest: The Yankees, Dodgers, Red Sox, Angels and Rangers – no surprise, as all are deep-pocket clubs. After paying the posting fee, Tanaka is expected to be offered a $60 million contract for five years.

Whether the outlay of about $120 million for Tanaka, a 6-foot-2 right-hander whose fastball is clocked at 95 mph, will be worth it is highly debatable. MLB’s expensive  Japanese imports have been, at best, a mixed bag.        

Since Hideo Nomo came to MLB at the height of his career in 1995, a slew of Japanese stars have followed. Nomo was rookie of the year and tossed two no-hitters. Ichiro Suzuki, a dual rookie of the year and MVP in 2001, is destined for the Hall of Fame. Hideki “Godzilla” Matsui was the World Series MVP in 2009.

But there were quite a few busts as well. Daisuke Matsuzaka, who cost the Red Sox over $103 million in 2007, had only one great season in his seven in MLB. The late Hideki Irabu couldn’t live up to his considerable hype and returned to Japan after six disappointing seasons in America. There are also more than a handful Japanese stars who never made big-league rosters.

John Gibson, a Tokyo-based American journalist who has covered baseball in Japan since 1995, cautions against unrealistic hype about Tanaka’s arrival.

“I can't really say how he’s going to turn out as compared to Dice-K or Darvish,” Gibson told The Diplomat. “It will depend on which team and what park and what kind of defense is behind him; and whether he can adjust philosophically to how they pitch in America. But the thing about Tanaka is he does a lot of homework and preparation. He’ll be ready to face hitters knowing all their strengths and weaknesses.”

Whichever team wins the posting bid will have about two months to negotiate with Tanaka and his representatives. And the windfall from the bid will benefit the Japanese club financially as they take a big hit on the field. In this case, the Eagles, who were founded only in 2005, will need to find a way to replace a pitcher who set an NPB record by winning 28 straight decisions.

The talent drain in recent years has not hurt the overall health of the NPB, says Gibson. It should be treated mostly on a case-by-case basis with each individual club.

“The Japanese baseball teams receive a king’s ransom for these postings,” Gibson told The Diplomat. “Like in the Seibu Lions’ case for Matsuzaka, they used the money to upgrade their stadium. When you lose these stars, it takes a special talent like Suzuki to really hurt a team. Then you have (Hiroyuki) Nakajima, who was an All-Star (for the Lions). He went to Oakland (in 2013) and never even made it to the majors but the Lions did better without him than they did last year.”

The MLB team with the winning bid for Tanaka will hope that he turns out to be a special talent. Only time will tell.

Samuel Chi is the Editor of RealClearSports and RealClearWorld. His column on world sport appears every Thursday in The Diplomat.