Yes, that’s a pretty bold statement right at the top but a realistic one.
With the news that Tanaka was going to be posted by his Japanese team, the Rakuten Golden Eagles, combined with the fact that there’s a new agreement in place between MLB and NPB (Nippon Professional Baseball) means that there is one factor that works for the Blue Jays being able to sign Tanaka and one factor that works against them.
Working for the Blue Jays is the fact that the new posting agreement caps the posting fee at $20 million. This means that the Blue Jays won’t be beat out in a blind auction by teams like the Rangers who offer fees upwards of $50 million just for the right to negotiate with a player (see Darvish, Yu). Because ALL of the teams that make the top posting bid get the chance to negotiate a contract with the Japanese player, the Blue Jays will be able to offer their $20 million (and only have to pay it if they sign Tanaka) and be able to to get in on the game.
In a sense this levels the playing field. Investments in Japanese pitchers ever since Daisuke Matsuzaka have always been somewhat risky with the huge upfront investments in the $50 million neighbourhood on a pitcher who has likely been overworked throughout his Japanese career. In a sense, Japanese pitchers are like ticking time bombs. You never know how many innings one of these guys will have left in his arm. The posting fee under the old system was a real deterrent for a pitcher who might only be able to pitch a couple of good years before breaking down (see Matsuzaka, Daisuke).
After eight outstanding seasons in Japan, Matsuzaka was posted by his club, the Seibu Lions and netted the team about $51 million from the Boston Red Sox who, in addition to laying out the posting fee, signed the 26-year-old Matsuzaka to a six-year, $52 million contract. In essence, the Red Sox got one great season (2008), two okay seasons (2007, 2010) and three bad seasons (2009, 2011, 2012) out of that investment of over $100 million. Matsuzaka basically had a couple of seasons of good health in him, only throwing more than 60 innings three times (2007, 2008, 2010) since he came to the US.
Yu Darvish, posted at the same age as Tanaka will be (25), also spent seven seasons dominating NPB and earned $51.7 million for his old team, the Nippon Ham Fighters. His contract, a six-year, $60 million deal, is looking far better than Matsuzaka’s. Darvish was good in his first season for the Texas Rangers but he was incredible in his second. It seems like Japanese baseball is being someone more cautious with their young pitchers and Darvish seems to be holding up to the rigours of MLB much better than Matsuzaka did. Two years in, Darvish looks like he’s a great investment but it still remains to be seen if he can hold up to the rigours of a different pitching rotation in North America as well as the greater intensity of pitching to a larger percentage of very good hitters.
For Tanaka, things will be different. Because the posting fee is so relatively small, the team will be committing fewer dollars up front and will be on the hook for a much larger (and longer-term) contract. It still remains to be seen what kind of a deal Tanaka will get but because the playing field to acquire him is much more even, the competition for his services is going to be fierce.
The Blue Jays, with their much publicized five-year limit on contracts, are going to be handicapped in this regard. While the Jays could easily spend the $15-20 million per season that Tanaka will be asking for (a big change compared to other contracts given out by MLB teams to NPB pitchers), they’re going to be hamstrung if they stick to this five-year limit. The Jays could try to overpay for five or six years, giving Tanaka the opportunity to go back out on the free-agent market in his early thirties, but my gut feeling is that there are going to be more teams who are willing to sign him for up to eight years (or more).
What is that contract going to look like? I’m thinking that it’ll be about eight-years and about $150-160 million. If I was the Blue Jays, I would offer the same amount of money over six years and see if that could entice Tanaka to Toronto. Unfortunately, I don’t think that the Blue Jays really have it in them to make a $170+ million investment, especially considering the club’s track record on long-term contracts under Alex Anthopoulos (i.e., they don’t give them out).
Sorry Blue Jays fan, except in a visiting uniform, I really don’t think that Masahiro Tanaka will be coming to Toronto.