The Dodgers have given every indication they're still in talks to land Japanese superstar Masahiro Tanaka, even after agreeing to a record seven-year contract with their homegrown ace, Clayton Kershaw.
Whether the Dodgers kick in another $140 million or so could boil down to how much they think the pitcher is worth to their World Series push and their efforts to rebuild a brand diminished under Frank McCourt. Let's look at some potential motivations for chasing Tanaka aside from the fact that he's really, really good and teams like good players:
The Dodgers wouldn’t just have three or four of the two dozen most talented pitchers on earth next season, they’d have a lot of different looks to throw at hitters.
Tanaka is often described by scouts as an extreme control pitcher with a good, not overpowering, fastball and a devastating split-finger pitch. That description fits the Dodgers’ No. 4 starter, Dan Haren, perfectly, or at least it did when he still had a low-90s fastball. The Dodgers would probably split those two up in the rotation, perhaps using Tanaka as the No. 2 starter and Haren as the No. 5 starter.
The No. 1 starter, Kershaw, is a power left-hander with two dominant breaking balls. The other lefty, Hyun-Jin Ryu, is a finesse lefty who changes speeds and locations. Greinke would be the Dodgers’ hardest-throwing righty, with a similar repertoire to Kershaw’s from the other side.
The Long Term
The Dodgers have developed this little habit of giving pitchers opt-out clauses in their contracts when they negotiate, so what initially looks like this rock-solid rotation for the foreseeable future isn’t quite that bankable. Clayton Kershaw has an opt-out. Zack Greinke has one. Hyun-Jin Ryu has one.
Greinke can opt out after 2015 if he’s willing to leave $71 million on the table, which isn’t out of the question if he has two more seasons like this past one. He’d be just 32 by then. Ryu can opt out after 2017 if he pitches 558 innings over the next four seasons, an easily obtainable total. He’d be just 31. Kershaw can opt out the following season, when he’s 30, which seems like a no-brainer if he continues pitching close to as well as he has and payroll inflation continues unchecked.
So, getting Tanaka signed to a six- or seven-year deal would give the Dodgers a touch more confidence that they won’t be in rebuild mode as these contracts start to reach their milestones. Then again, Tanaka is represented by the same agent, Casey Close, who represents Kershaw and Greinke, so he might just have one, too. Ugh.
The Dodgers dispatched a group of marketing executives to Asia this winter to drum up business, trying to capitalize on the fact that Ryu might be the biggest sports celebrity in South Korea. The team would have similar opportunities in Japan. Tanaka wouldn’t have the novelty factor for Japanese fans, who have seen plenty of players become major stars in Major League Baseball since Hideo Nomo broke the ice. But he would be the Next Big Thing, likely attracting 30 or 40 reporters to cover his every move.
Beyond sponsorship deals, the Dodgers are competing with the other West Coast teams to have the greatest brand penetration across the Pacific. They already have a head start, playing in Australia will help, and Tanaka would cement them as the Pacific Rim’s team.
Getting Tanaka would put heat on some of the veterans trying to find room in the Dodgers’ rotation. They may not like it, but if they respond properly, that’s not necessarily a bad thing for the Dodgers.
Presumably, signing Tanaka would make Haren the No. 5 starter. That means Josh Beckett would have to open some eyes in spring training just to secure a future as a major-league pitcher. Haren would have to pitch well to hold on, especially if Chad Billingsley returns to form by May or June, as they hope he will.
The Dodgers then could stockpile their young arms, guys like Zach Lee, Ross Stripling and Chris Reed, at Triple-A and Double-A, giving them appealing reserves they really haven’t had for several years. Those guys would have to pitch well to put themselves at the front of the line.
If everyone on the 25-man roster stays healthy, the Dodgers would have some roster juggling to do by the end of spring training and Beckett could find himself in all sorts of trade rumors, but the Dodgers are getting used to that kind of thing.
Needs will arise between now and next July that no one is anticipating. Remember last April, when a surplus of starting pitching became a shortage? The extra outfielder problem proved a not-enough-outfielders problem in the playoffs.
Landing Tanaka would allow the Dodgers to consider moving a top-flight prospect or two between now and the trade deadline, something they’re now loathe to consider. The Dodgers appear to have a nice wave of younger pitching talent on the horizon with guys like Julio Urias and Chris Anderson, who both started pro ball last summer.
Tanaka and Kershaw are both 25. That means, if their bodies hold up, they’re really not much older than the next wave of prospects. That makes at least one or two of those prospects -- Lee, Stripling and Reed, say -- potentially expendable. From the organization’s standpoint, that’s a good thing.