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Sayonara, Tanaka? MLB Fans May Have to Wait for Japanese Ace

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Sayonara, Tanaka? MLB Fans May Have to Wait for Japanese Ace

The hottest bidding war in Major League Baseball history might not happen this winter.

Masahiro Tanaka, the 25-year-old Japanese pitcher who’s the object of desire for several deep-pocket MLB teams after a historic season in 2013, could end up stuck in Japan. That might be for a few weeks, but in a “worst-case” scenario, maybe for another season.

Had everything gone according to plan, Tanaka would have been posted in early November, right after he led the Rakuten Eagles to their first Japan Series championship following a record-setting 24-0 regular season. But because a prior deal between MLB and the Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) league had expired with no new agreement in place, Tanaka’s impending move across the Pacific is now in limbo.

NPB dispatched a contingent to New York this week to meet with MLB officials in hopes of getting a new deal done to smooth the transfer of Tanaka, and others, in this off-season. But at the moment, there’s no guarantee that a new agreement would be reached anytime soon, if at all.

“Once the (new posting system) is determined, we’ll take a look at everything as a whole and decide whether or not to post (Tanaka),” Eagles club president Yozo Tachibana told the Yomiuri Shimbun. “Considering the way things are done in the United States, once the Winter Meetings are over, (Christmas vacation) slows things down and there isn’t much going on.”

There are two major sticking points, one between MLB and NPB and another that pits MLB’s own clubs against each other – the haves vs. the have-nots.

As a whole, MLB would like to lower the cost of doing business with NPB to secure passage for the Japanese star players. Under the previous agreement, the MLB team with the winning bid had to pay in excess of $50 million just for the privilege of negotiating with the player regardless of whether a deal was reached or not. MLB now would like to modify the agreement so that its club would get some of that money back if the player isn’t signed.

As for the other layer in this impasse: Small-market MLB teams do not like the fact that the previous posting rules allow the bidding teams to circumvent the luxury tax and therefore get a quality free agent without the posting fee counting against a penalty levy.

Almost all the big Japanese signings over the past decade have been made by the richest MLB clubs, including the last two – Daisuke Matsuzaka in 2007 and Yu Darvish in 2012, which cost the Boston Red Sox and Texas Rangers, respectively, over $50 million in posting fees. It’s simply not something a small-market franchise can afford. The overall cost to sign Matsuzaka and Darvish (at over $100 million each) was more than the entire 2013 payroll of more than half of the MLB teams.

It’s no surprise that Tanaka’s main suitors are the usual suspects: The New York Yankees, Los Angeles Dodgers, Los Angeles Angels and Texas Rangers are the teams expected to break the bank for the right-hander. The latest speculation puts the posting fee for Tanaka at around $70 million with another $60-70 million required to sign him to a five-year deal.

If he’s available, Tanaka is without question the top free-agent pitcher prize this winter. While MLB scouts are concerned about his usage – Japanese pitchers typically throw considerably more pitches than their MLB counterparts – there seems to be few questioning his talent.

“His slider and splitter are his best (pitches),” an MLB scout told The Diplomat on condition of anonymity. “That splitter might be as good anybody’s (in MLB) and he has just such good command on all his pitches … I see him as somebody who has more of an upside than Darvish.”

There’s certainly more of a “star power” element to Tanaka than any of MLB’s previous Japanese imports. As he embarked on his record-setting season, Tanaka’s progress was closely tracked by the media in both New York and Los Angeles, with the knowledge that he’d be available in the offseason. His name has been on the forefront of the offseason “hot stove league” from the very beginning.

Married to Mai Satoda, a Japanese pop singer, Tanaka’s popularity in Japan has reached new heights after leading the Eagles to an upset of the storied Yomiuri Giants in the Japan Series, with him closing out the deciding Game 7 victory. But one of his Eagles teammates – a former New York Yankee, no less – doesn’t think he’ll be fazed by all the fame and adulation on the other side of the Pacific.

“He never once had any of those ‘backpage’ stories (in Japan),” Casey McGehee, who played third base for the Eagles last season, told the New York Daily News. “Obviously, he’ll have to make adjustments if he goes to the majors, mentally and physically, get used to a new catcher, new style of calling games. But he’ll be fine. He’s the best pitcher in Japan – and it’s not close, either.”

But whether Tanaka ends up in the Big Apple or Tinseltown is now largely out of his hands. How he is going to be sold and who should get how much will be haggled over by a few suits from New York and Tokyo first.

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