First, let me preface this by saying that no decision has made by Tanaka's home team, the Rakuten Golden Eagles, on whether to post him this season to the newly agreed upon MLB-NPB posting system. While there are some creative ideas floating around about how it might ultimately work to best benefit the Golden Eagles, all signs indicate that the A's would first need to pony up the $20M posting fee agreed to before receiving negotiation rights with him. What's more, it is likely that the monied teams such as the Angels, Dodgers, Yankees, Cubs, Rangers, and Giants could all post the fee and be competing for his services for 2014. In other words, this is probably a longshot.
Forgetting abouy all that for a bit, though, what kind of pitcher is Tanaka anyway? Well, he's probably the best pitcher to come out of Japan since Yu Darvish, and there are decent comps for him. In fact, Jeff Sullivan has already done a lot of work on that, and he's way better than I am, so let's see what he says:
The comparison between Tanaka and Kuroda goes beyond just the Japanese thing. Both are right-handed starters. Both have fastballs around the low 90s. Both throw a lot of sliders, both are known for their command, and most importantly, both feature a frequent splitter. There just haven't been that many splitters among big-league starting pitchers lately, which is one reason why the Kuroda comparison isn't as lazy as it can seem. Since 2002, just seven starters have thrown at least 20% splitters. Just 11 more have thrown at least 10% splitters. Included are names like Kuroda, Hideo Nomo, Kenshin Kawakami, and Hisashi Iwakuma. The splitter is a popular pitch in Japan, so Japanese pitchers frequently make for easy comparisons for Japanese pitchers.
He also made this lovely table:
It's probably about time to peek at what Tanaka has done over there. Kuroda, Kawakami, Darvish, and Iwakuma are the recent imports to make plenty of big-league starts. Here's a table comparing them to Tanaka, focusing on strikeouts and walks, covering their last three seasons in Japan, and adjusting for league:
If you don't believe him, there is also Ben Badler from Baseball America who has this scouting report:
At 6-foot-2, 205 pounds, Tanaka throws a low-90s fastball that can touch 96 mph. Even though Tanaka can reach the mid-90s, his fastball is the pitch that gives some scouts pause because it comes in on a flat plane, making it more hittable than the velocity might suggest. Tanaka has two secondary pitches that have earned grades of 60 or better on the 20-80 scouting scale, including a 70 splitter with late downward action to keep hitters off his fastball. His low- to mid-80s slider is another plus weapon, while he'll mix in a curveball as well.
If you want to look at it from a runs/wins perspective, let's say that Tanaka is 80% of what Darvish is (which may ultimately be conservative). Darvish's last two seasons have produced 4.9 and 5.0 WAR, respectively. Given that, Tanaka could be a 4-win pitcher or better if everything falls into place.
TL; dr version of the above: he's really good!
Because of that, those monied teams are going to be driving up the cost for his services, one way or another. But let's just say it did work, and the A's managed to find themselves bidding for his services. All signs are pointing towards him receiving a $100M contract for 5 years or more, giving it an average annual value of $20M+. Obviously, the A's could simply decide that they wish to blow out the budget and carry a $100M payroll for the first time in their franchise history. More likely, of course, is that they would have to unload some parts to do so. Can they stay around the same payroll ($81M or so), and still sign him? Here are some ways they could shed the $20M
Trade Johnson, Gregerson, and Callaspo
Money-wise, this is the most obvious solution. While the A's have potentially built an all-time great bullpen and excellent bench, these players are collectively slated to earn around $20M in 2014. Would the A's rather have 1.9 WAR spread out in three role players, or potentially more wins locked up in fewer roster spots for equal money? A.J. Griffin, Tom Milone, Jesse Chavez, Fernando Rodriguez, and others would be in line for the now open spots, with Jeremy Barfield maybe even showing up midseason like Doolittle did in 2012. Given Callaspo's potentially limited role anyway, Andy Parrino could his replacement on the left side of the diamond.
Trade Cespedes and Crisp
Ah, here's where it could get interesting. The A's have these two players signed through 2015 and 2014, respectively. Each has his own set of issues: injuries for both, consistency for Cespedes, and age for Crisp. Combined, they will make $18M in 2014. They are also still valuable players, and in Cespedes' case, he may have more name value than actual value. What's more, Cespedes should fetch a fine haul in a trade that would stock the farm system with actual prospects who aren't named Addison Russell.
Given the A's acquisition of Gentry, he could be installed as the full-time center fielder, with Brandon Moss being the full-time left fielder. That would open up first base for Barton/Jaso/Freiman and likely a catching rotation of Norris and Vogt. On the other hand, hope that those outfielders play 150 games or more each because 4th OF is looking like Michael Taylor. Of course, there's always the option of re-acquiring Adam Rosales and having him as the super sub again.
Trade Callaspo, Crisp, and Gregerson
This is the "spread the losses" option that also saves the least amount of money. Combined, they will make $17.275M, which would likely increase the payroll to around $85M. Conversely, the bullpen would remain relatively strong, the outfield would not sustain such a heavy loss, and Callaspo is already looking like the odd guy out. What's more, Cespedes is one guy the A's are leaning on to make up for some of Lowrie and Donaldson's likely regression, so trading him could significantly affect the offense. None of those players are likely to fetch any top tier prospects, but that could also grease the skids on potential trades since teams would not have to give up much.
Do you think the A's show go after Tanaka and make some of these trades, or is it too risky? If so, which trade scenario do you like?
Update: this morning, many outlets are reporting that Tanaka has been offered an NPB record $7.7M contract to stay with Rakuten. On the other hand, there was a report earlier that the other NPB teams were considering adding to the $20M posting fee with their own money, ostensibly to make Tanaka leave for MLB. In other words, this could be posturing by Rakuten to get the other NPB teams to sweeten their offers. This is still a fluid situation, and as I commented below, there are no conclusions to be drawn unless Tanaka signs the contract he's supposedly been offered.