LOS ANGELES -- Let’s not pretend that losing out on Masahiro Tanaka isn’t a legitimate blow to the Dodgers.
He was their No. 1 target among free agent pitchers all along. They had scouted him extensively. They visited with him when he was in Los Angeles. They would have boarded a plane if he wanted to do the meeting in Tokyo -- or Sri Lanka or Timbuktu. They would have likely figured a way to get to the International Space Station if that was his appointed locale.
The Dodgers liked Tanaka. A lot. They wanted him in their rotation. A lot.
What they lacked was the spur of necessity, which is why we shouldn’t be totally surprised to see Tanaka get past them, agreeing to a seven-year, $155 million deal with the New York Yankees, a record contract for an Asian-born player.
As Tuesday moved along, the Dodgers, according to a source, started to feel the salary numbers were moving beyond what they were willing to lay out. As far as we know, that is the first time under the new ownership group that the Dodgers had stepped aside on a player they had prioritized as a premium target because the bidding got too intense. They've let relievers and bench players go because the numbers swelled beyond their comfort level, but not elite-level talent.
But look at it this way: Isn’t $155 million a tad steep for a No. 3 starter? That is quite likely what Tanaka would have been in the Dodgers’ rotation, which is no knock on him. Zack Greinke, who signed a six-year $147 million deal not that long ago to be the Dodgers’ No. 2, is a former Cy Young winner coming off a season in which he led the majors in winning percentage and had a 2.63 ERA in his 28 starts. When he was healthy, he was as good as any No. 2 starter in baseball.
Last season, the Dodgers played 10 post-season games and used their No. 3 starter, Hyun-Jin Ryu, in just two of them.
Had the Yankees lost out on Tanaka, they might not have been competitive in their division next season, let alone contenders for a World Series. Is there anyone who doesn't view the Dodgers as an elite team in their league because of Wednesday morning's news?
With Clayton Kershaw locked up now for the next five to seven years, the Dodgers didn’t need a long-term hedge against losing their ace. For at least the next two seasons, the Dodgers have Kershaw, Greinke and Ryu leading their rotation, with a good corps of young arms starting to push ahead in the minor leagues. Greinke can opt out of his contract after 2015, but by then there could be a bumper crop of free agent pitchers hitting the market, including Max Scherzer, James Shields, Jon Lester, Justin Masterson and Homer Bailey.
They’ve been engaged in contract extension talks with Hanley Ramirez, arguably the best offensive shortstop in the game, and getting him locked up figures to be more likely now that Tanaka is out of the equation.
If Tanaka seamlessly adjusts to the major leagues -- far from an easy task pitching in the AL East -- the Dodgers might find themselves regretting not extending their offer. Then again, if things aren’t so smooth for Tanaka and the Dodgers are able to land David Price or another elite arm in July and then, as they’ve done in recent seasons, extend that pitcher after the season, they could be glad they let this opportunity pass.
In the end, that’s what all these decisions come down to for teams: costs and opportunities and opportunities are relative to a team’s needs.