LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – In this crucible of rumors, unique is the case of Masahiro Tanaka, who may or may not be coming to Major League Baseball this season, depending on who's doing the whispering. There is the National League official who believes he is coming and the American League executive who believes he isn't and many more, split almost evenly down the middle.
The will-he-or-won't-he question may find resolution in the next couple of days. Sources told Yahoo Sports that Yozo Tachibana, president of the Rakuten Golden Eagles, plans to arrive at the winter meetings here on Tuesday. His appearance may lend clarity to Rakuten's plan of whether to accept a $20 million posting fee for the right-hander's transfer to an MLB team this offseason or reject it and rob the pitching market of its jewel.
Confusion over Tanaka's immediate future is borne of a carefully crafted plan in which he has not publicly expressed interest in MLB, even if privately he has told people he would like to post. The influence of the Rakuten front office over the 25-year-old right-hander is significant, sources said, and the drastic change in posting rules may have affected his future accordingly.
One longtime observer of Japanese baseball said the rancor within Rakuten over the system is so significant, and the value in posting him now so neutered, the team would be foolish to post him now. Whereas in the past the blind bidding of the posting system encouraged teams to throw around huge dollars for top players – Yu Darvish's team received $51.7 million and Daisuke Matsuzaka's $51.1 million – the recently agreed-upon system caps the posting fee at $20 million. Not only is it a pittance compared to previous numbers, Tanaka was expected to fetch a posting fee in the $75 million range.
Now, if he posts, the vast majority of the money will go to him. Executives polled Monday anticipated somewhere in the neighborhood of a six-year contract in excess of $100 million, not a ludicrous sum considering such a deal plus the posting fee would be in the neighborhood of the outlay for Darvish ($108 million) and Matsuzaka ($103 million).
For Rakuten, of course, the deal is a bust, and for MLB's sake, it happens to be dealing with the wrong team to weather such a change without blowback. Rakuten owner Hiroshi Mikitani is one of Japan's most successful businessmen, and those who know him describe him as a person who doesn't kowtow to convention. So the idea of Rakuten simply honoring Tanaka's wishes to pitch in the major leagues may not be as simple as that, sources said.
The team could very well sell Tanaka on the idea of playing one more season for Rakuten before posting him, a common practice for Japanese teams looking to exert leverage over the player. Already, sources said, Tanaka's potential exit is being handled by upper management with Rakuten, including Hiroshi Abei, a former translator who has ascended to a scouting director position, along with a member of the team's public-relations staff.
Should Rakuten hold firm that $20 million is too paltry a figure compared to what they were to receive, the team could try to persuade Tanaka that one more season in Japan is preferable anyway. Though he likely wouldn't make much more than $5 million with Rakuten in 2014 – Tanaka went 24-0 with a 1.27 ERA and a 183-to-32 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 212 innings and was paid around $3.8 million – he would be returning to defend the team's Japan Series title.
More important for Rakuten is recouping as much money as possible from the posting-system overhaul, and keeping Tanaka around, if only for a marketable farewell tour, could be lucrative. Moreover, while Japanese teams in the past needed to time their postings to the potential health of a pitcher – a severe arm injury could mean the difference between a $50 million fee and a $20 million fee – the $20 million cap is almost insurance against an arm injury, knowing MLB teams likely will be willing to risk such a relatively small amount even if a pitcher were hurt.
No matter how iffy the situations, each of the executives surveyed expressed interest in Tanaka. At $20 million, the price would draw interest from big spenders like the Yankees to tight budgets like the Astros. The general consensus among scouts is that Tanaka is, at worst, a No. 3 starter and, with his devastating split-fingered fastball, a potential No. 1. He is the sort who causes the very bidding war by which Rakuten wanted to line its pockets instead of his.
Perhaps there can be an under-the-table deal for Tanaka to funnel money back to Rakuten. Sources said such deals have happened before with teams giving a portion of the posting fee to the player. At this point, the likelihood of that is unclear, seeing as there is confusion over even who would serve as Tanaka's agent were Rakuten to post him.
For now, then, Masahiro Tanaka is but another series of whispers, a mystery hard-boiled into a rumor. Maybe Tachibana will elucidate the world more on Tuesday, or maybe it will simply be like any of his old Winter Meetings visits of the past and not at all newsworthy. Though that is unlikely. The new posting system has its first test case, and we'll know soon enough whether its intended effect ends up backfiring.
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