CHICAGO -- “We wish there was a free-agent market for young players.” -- Chicago Cubs President Theo Epstein, Nov. 8, 2013.
Epstein and the Cubs got what they wanted -- sort of -- when Major League baseball and Nippon Professional Baseball finally agreed on a new “posting” system Monday, allowing Japanese star players to resume coming to the United States.
It paves the way for 25-year-old right-hander Masahiro Tanaka to come to the big leagues if his Japanese team allows. Tanaka was 24-0 in the regular season for the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles, who went on to win the Nippon championship. He is the biggest name to potentially come over this offseason and he’ll be well sought after by many major league teams. Worst case, he projects as a No.2 starter but most scouts believe he can be a No. 1.
Under the new posting system, the Golden Eagles would set a “fee” -- which is capped at $20 million -- for allowing him to come to the United States. Clubs that agree to meet that fee would have 30 days to negotiate with Tanaka just as if he were any other free agent. The club that agrees to terms with him then pays that fee over to Rakuten. If no agreement with any team can be reached within 30 days then Tanaka would return to Japan and can’t be “posted” again until Nov. 1, 2014.
The Cubs have not beaten around the bush about their interest in Tanaka. He fits their needs like a glove.
“We’re going to be part of the process,” general manager Jed Hoyer said last month from the GM meetings in Orlando. “We’ve done our work on him and plan on being part of it.”
Hoyer made those comments while a new posting system was being worked out so it's not completely clear if the interest remains the same now, though you would have to assume it would be. Why is Tanaka -- who could potentially cost $100 million on top of the $20 million posting fee -- so intriguing to the Cubs? After all, there are plenty of good pitchers on the market that wouldn’t cost them $20 million just to negotiate. The simple answer is his age. At 25, and talented, Tanaka fits the Cubs' plan.
“It’s rare these days,” Hoyer said in November. “They (Japanese players) get posted at an age that is younger than the typical American free agent.”
Even if Tanaka has to pitch through a couple of losing years he’ll still be young enough, and hopefully just entering his prime, as the Cubs bring up their prospects and start to turn the corner. He would be the anchor of a team through the transition and into a contending phase.
Of course, the problem the Cubs would face under the new system is an all-out bidding war with some of the top teams in the league. Under the old system, a “blind-bid” winner would get the right to negotiate with the Japanese player. The Texas Rangers spent a whopping $51 million to win the rights to Yu Darvish in 2011. At that point, they became the only negotiator with Darvish and a deal was struck.
Under the new system, every team in the league can meet the $20 million max posting fee which means plenty of rich suitors for Tanaka, including the New York Yankees, Los Angeles Dodgers and many other teams. Can the Cubs negotiate a better deal with Tanaka than any of them? Do they have the money to do so? Recent history hasn’t shown an interest in them doing this but this is exactly the type of player Epstein meant when he said he wished there was free agency for young players. They need him in all ways and presumably can find money to get him.
There’s only one problem with the new system that could affect the Cubs negatively. They have to convince him to come to a losing team, one that may not win for a few years -- or may never win. That likely means outspending everyone else in the market for him. Unless Tanaka has an affinity for Chicago, or some other mysterious reason for coming here, then the Cubs have one less thing to offer than the Yankees or Dodgers or other teams. That usually means overpaying. Even then, the Cubs have to hope he’s not willing to take less to play for a winner. In some ways, the old system may have been better for the Cubs. Several major league sources said as much recently.
The one major thing going for the Cubs involves the luxury tax. The Yankees are multiple violators and the Dodgers would undoubtedly be as well whether they sign Tanaka or not. Under the old system the player got less in salary than he will now. That affects payrolls and paying that tax. That helps the Cubs who have never had to pay the tax which kicks in if payroll is over $189 million for 2014.
So there are many moving parts to the Tanaka equation. Will his team allow him to come over here when they stand to make only $20 million? How many real bidders will attempt to sign him? And will the big market teams stay away in fear of the luxury tax?
Most important to Cubs fans is this question: Is owner Tom Ricketts ready to make the boldest move since buying the team? With Monday’s announcement we should be closer to finding out.