Masahiro Tanaka, the Japanese right-hander who was 24-0 and led the Rakuten Golden Eagles to their first Japan Series championship, is free to come to the U.S. major leagues as a virtual free agent, according to reports out of Japan.
Golden Eagles president Yozo Tachibana was quoted by Japanese news outlets Tuesday night saying team owner Hiroshi Mikitani "accepted [Tanaka's] wish to challenge himself in the major leagues and decided to petition for him to be posted."
With a mid-90s fastball and clever split-fingered fastball, Tanaka becomes the best pitcher on an otherwise middling winter market for pitchers. The New York Yankees, Los Angeles Dodgers and Texas Rangers, among many of the richest U.S. franchises, are expected to bid on the 25-year-old Tanaka, who could demand a contract worth $100 million or more.
Revered in his native country, where he is known as "Ma-Kun," Tanaka had become entangled in the rewriting of posting rules that govern the movement of Japanese players to Major League Baseball. Previously, U.S. franchises had bid blindly for the exclusive rights to negotiate with a player. In this model, the Boston Red Sox paid $51.1 million to the Seibu Lions for the rights to Daisuke Matsuzaka in 2006, and the Rangers paid $51.7 million to the Nippon-Ham Fighters for the rights to Yu Darvish in 2011. Both pitchers signed contracts worth more than $50 million.
Believing the posting system was unfair to middle- and small-market clubs, MLB sought to redraft the agreement. Japan league officials agreed reluctantly to a $20 million cap on release fees and a system that allowed its posted player to negotiate with any teams it wished. Rakuten officials voted against the agreement, as they stood to lose $30 million or more in a Tanaka transaction.
Tanaka expressed his desire to test his skills in the major leagues. After days of internal debate, Harvard-educated Golden Eagles owner Mikitani reportedly relented.
Under the new rules, Tanaka has 30 days to reach an agreement with a major-league club.
Most teams view Tanaka as a front-end starter, though perhaps not on the level of Darvish, Tanaka's countryman who in two seasons with the Rangers is 29-18 with a 3.34 ERA. Darvish was second in AL Cy Young Award voting in 2013.
The transition to the U.S. game – its stronger hitters, different routines, even the baseball itself – has been difficult for some Japanese pitchers who arrived with great promise. Matsuzaka, for one, had one standout season for the Red Sox, but otherwise was not effective and became prone to injury. Hideki Irabu came to the Yankees with great fanfare in 1997, but washed out after a few marginal seasons. The Yankees then signed Kei Igawa, whom they paid $20 million for two big-league wins.
The successes start with Hideo Nomo, who signed with the Dodgers in 1995 and won 123 games over 12 seasons for seven teams. Darvish has been brilliant in two seasons with the Rangers. Hiroki Kuroda did not arrive until he was 33, but in six seasons with the Dodgers and Yankees has posted a 3.40 ERA.
In seven seasons with Rakuten, Tanaka is 99-35 with a 2.30 ERA. His ERA in 2013, to go along with his 24-0 record, was 1.27. He won Japan's equivalent to the Cy Young Award for the second time. Before losing in the Japan Series, he'd won 30 consecutive decisions.
For a team seeking starting pitching, the alternative free agents are Ervin Santana, Matt Garza, A.J. Burnett and Ubaldo Jimenez, a class that has mustered little enthusiasm from general managers.