Pitcher Masahiro Tanaka is on schedule to move to Major League Baseball next season after his Japanese team, the Rakuten Eagles, announced Wednesday it was prepared to let him leave, reversing its earlier rejection.
Rakuten Eagles president Yozo Tachibana said during a news conference that the team has decided to release Tanaka through the posting system, paving the way for his departure. Tachibana said Tanaka's outstanding performance over the past seven years, including this season, meant he deserved to be allowed to move to the U.S.
The posting period for Tanaka begins Thursday and the 30-day negotiation window will close Jan. 24 at 5 p.m. ET, MLB spokesman Mike Teevan said.
Tanaka went 24-0 with a 1.27 ERA with the Eagles during the regular season and sought a move to the majors, but he has two years remaining on his contract and Rakuten was under no obligation to release him. The New York Times reported last week that Rakuten was prepared to make Tanaka the highest-paid Japanese pitcher in history by offering to double or possibly triple his $4 million annual salary.
"I'm grateful to the team for allowing me to try. Now I've made a first step," he said. "I hope I would receive offers from as many teams as possible so I have a wider option."
His 53 complete games and 18 shutouts in Japanese League play both would be tops in MLB among active pitchers. The current active leaders are CC Sabathia (37 complete games) and Tim Hudson (13 shutouts).
The New York Yankees are considered the leading candidates to sign Tanaka, though the capping of the posting fee at $20 million meant many other teams could also afford to make offers. The Chicago Cubs, Boston Red Sox and Los Angeles Dodgers are among those said to have interest in Tanaka.
The Eagles had rejected the new posting system but it was passed by a vote of Japan's professional teams. Following that decision, Rakuten had initially said they want to retain Tanaka, before Wednesday's change of heart.
Tachibana said the team took into consideration Tanaka's "outstanding contribution to the team" since he joined the Eagles seven years ago. Tanaka's perfect 24-0 record set a new mark in the history of Japanese professional baseball and brought a first league championship to the team based in Sendai, which is still recovering from the devastation wrought by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami.
For 30 days from the time a player is posted, any MLB team can attempt to sign the player. It pays the posting fee only if it signs the player. A player who is not signed may not be posted again until the following Nov. 1.
Tachibana said his team is happy to retain Tanaka if he does not reach an agreement with an MLB team.
The new posting system was negotiated after some MLB teams objected that only the richest clubs could afford to bid on top Japanese players.
Under the previous agreement, which began in 1998 and ran through last offseason, there was no cap on bidding and only the highest bidder could negotiate with the player.
Major League Baseball and Nippon Professional Baseball finalized a new posting system earlier this month for Japanese players who have not reached free agency. The $20 million cap is much less than what Japanese teams previously got for players such as pitchers Yu Darvish and Daisuke Matsuzaka. Boston obtained Matsuzaka from the Seibu Lions before the 2007 season for $51,111,111.11, and agreed to a $52 million, six-year contract. Texas got Darvish from the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters before the 2012 season for $51,703,411 and gave him a $56 million, six-year deal.
Under the rules of the three-year agreement announced Dec. 16, a Japanese club can make players available between Nov. 1 and Feb. 1.
Information from the Associated Press has been used in this report.