The Dodgers are interested in Japanese pitching star Masahiro Tanaka, which should surprise absolutely no one.
Tanaka is widely regarded as the best free agent pitcher available this winter, the Dodgers have been scouting him for months -- at least -- and the team has nothing but questions in its rotation beyond a rugged top three of Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke and Hyun-Jin Ryu.
But is Tanaka, who went an astonishing 24-0 in the regular season and pitches in the Japanese version of the World Series on Saturday, worth a Greinke-sized outlay of cash? And can the Dodgers afford to wait around, possibly letting other free agents go, while Major League Baseball and the NPB work out a new posting system, the system runs its course and they start the negotiating process? Tanaka, according to reports, doesn't even have an agent yet.
To focus the offseason on Tanaka could pose a considerable risk, but it’s not necessarily the wrong play, particularly if you’re underwhelmed by the alternatives of Matt Garza, Ricky Nolasco, Bartolo Colon, Hiroki Kuroda and Ervin Santana, some of the other free agent starters on the market.
Tanaka, who turned 25 today, had a 1.27 ERA for the Rakuten Eagles over 212 innings and there are scouts who think he has the best split-finger fastball in the world. He’s not the power pitcher Yu Darvish is, but some scouts say he has better command and 24-0 (in a highly competitive league) is 24-0.
The Dodgers took a bigger risk, baseball-wise, on Ryu, who was the first player to jump directly from the Korean pro league to the majors, and that panned out brilliantly. Ryu finished tied with Stephen Strasburg for eighth in the NL with a 3.00 ERA.
The Dodgers will have competition, of course, with the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox and Chicago Cubs rumored to be particularly keen on Tanaka. The Texas Rangers had to pay $51.7 million just to talk to Darvish two years ago and some anonymous team executives told Yahoo’s Jeff Passan they expect Rakuten to collect between $75 million and $100 million in a posting fee. If that’s the case, the Dodgers would be looking at spending somewhere in the neighborhood of Greinke’s six-year, $147 million deal last December.
For that price, the Dodgers could re-sign Nolasco and a couple of other free agent starters, giving them a bounty of options in spring training, with Chad Billingsley and Josh Beckett coming off major surgeries.
But consider the benefits of Tanaka. Signing him would not cost the Dodgers a draft pick. His posting fee wouldn’t count against the luxury tax. Having the two biggest pitching stars from Korea and Japan couldn’t hurt the Dodgers’ global marketing efforts. The team is allocating resources to drum up sponsorship deals with Korean companies this winter.
And then there’s this: What if he’s as good as his numbers suggest? The Dodgers could have the Pacific Rim’s three greatest pitchers, Korea's Ryu, Japan's Tanaka and the U.S.'s Kershaw. And what’s the worth of the Dodgers’ first World Series title in 26 years? Let the average fan answer that and it's probably in the range of, "Whatever it costs."