At the moment, the baseball world can't stop talking about Alex Rodriguez and performance-enhancing drugs. The story's got everything -- a superstar player, the Yankees, crime, intrigue and the chance to show what a good person you are by decrying drug addicts and cheaters. It is almost the perfect story. It also has absolutely nothing to do with the Oakland A's, so I don't have a lot to say about it here.
After A-Rod, there is really only one thing going on in baseball this month: the Masahiro Tanaka Sweepstakes. If you've been asleep since the World Series, Tanaka is a pitching phenom from Japan who has been posted by his team and is available as a free agent. He might be an ace in the majors, or he might be a No. 3 starter, but he's probably not going to suck (unless he gets hurt). Sure, there are other free agents who haven't yet signed, but no one is going anywhere until the Golden Eagle has landed. If you want to talk baseball this January, then Tanaka is your only option.
Since it's Tanaka Or Bust, let's go ahead and talk about Tanaka. Let's begin with the first obvious question.
Why are we even talking about this?
Fair question. The Athletics are never a major player in free agency, and they're certainly never in on the big-ticket guys who sign for $20 million per year. But before you assume that Tanaka is a lock for the Dodgers or Yankees, remember that, in recent years, the Mystery Team™ has scored the big haul with increasing regularity. One or two big-market teams seem locked into a superstar, and then someone else swoops in out of the blue and grabs him before anyone even has time to report the rumor. Heck, we already sort of saw an example this winter when the Mariners signed Robinson Cano, in the sense that the superstar went to a team who didn't seem like an immediately obvious match. Nobody ever suspects the butterfly.
OK, but can the A's really be the Mystery Team this time?
If there is one thing that Billy Beane is good at, it's being mysterious. He recently put his magic on display by signing Yoenis Cespedes out from under the noses of several higher-profile suitors, which lead to a few relevant observations. The first is that Billy is willing to make a big strike for the right guy. The second is that he likes the international market because it's the best chance to score an MLB-ready star for a below-market rate; since the players are untested in the majors, the inherent gamble that they represent depresses their values on the open market. The third is that you just never know what Beane is going to do, because nobody saw him going for Cespedes until the deal was already done.
Furthermore, the A's have officially been linked to Tanaka. It is a tenuous link, and it comes with the admission that nearly every team has been linked to the pitcher, but it bring with it an interesting quote (via NY Daily News):
"Watch out for Oakland," the executive told the Daily News. "They've got as much money as any team and they like doing these big international things."
When people are expecting Billy to zig, he zags. He'll trade prospects to rent Matt Holliday, or bring back a 40-year-old PED convict, or pay $11 million for a closer, if the time is right and the move makes sense in context. You can understand the patterns in the way Billy does business, but that doesn't mean that you can predict what he'll do next. He will always keep you guessing.
So why go after this player?
Because Tanaka is exactly what the A's need. The lineup is set. You may have individual quibbles with specific guys, but Oakland scored the fourth-most runs in the majors last year and the entire squad is returning except for Seth Smith and the disappointing Chris Young. Maybe the offense slips, but it'll still be above-average. The defense is good, with strong gloves at second base, third base and the entire outfield. The bullpen is stacked, and the rotation is deep with solid options.
If I could add one more thing to this team with an eye toward winning a World Series, it would be an ace starter who could go up against Verlander or Lester or Darvish or Price (or Kershaw or Wainwright) in a postseason series. Maybe that guy is Sonny Gray, and maybe it's Scott Kazmir. But I'd like to go into a contending season with a better bet than a youngster with 64 major league innings or a bounce-back veteran with exactly one 200-inning season on his resume.
More power would be great, but where are you going to get it? Nelson Cruz for nearly $20 million per year? An upgrade at second base would be helpful, but who is available? Literally nobody of interest. A trade for Jason Castro would be fantastic, but it wouldn't preclude a Tanaka deal since it would cost prospects rather than money; in fact, it would actually increase the need for a new starter because the trade return would likely have to include someone like Dan Straily or A.J. Griffin. At least one source says that the A's still have money to work with, and if that's the case, there is nowhere else worth spending it than on a top-of-the-rotation starter.
There are other pitchers available, of course. You can have Ubaldo Jimenez or Ervin Santana, but they aren't aces, they won't be much cheaper and they will also cost Oakland a first-round draft pick. You can have Matt Garza if you...ok, sorry, I can't even finish that sentence with a straight face. I don't think anybody in this community wants Garza. You can rent David Price if you want to lose Addison Russell, or you can have Homer Bailey or Jeff Samardzija if you want to strip the rest of the farm system. Or, you can have Tanaka for nothing but money.
Would he be worth it?
Unfortunately, that is impossible to say. All that we know is what he has been and roughly what he will cost. It sounds like Tanaka will get something like $20 million per season for at least five seasons, give or take a couple million or a sixth season. What exactly is he, then?
Tanaka just turned 25 in November. That makes him the same age as Jarrod Parker and Straily, and just a year older than Gray. He's seven months younger than Clayton Kershaw, who might ink a $300 million contract by the end of the calendar year. If you sign Tanaka, then you're expecting to get his peak, not his decline years.
Here is what Tanaka did in his last three seasons in Japan, at ages 22-24:
Tanaka, 2011-13: 78 starts (~8 innings per start), 1.44 ERA, 8.73 K/9, 1.15 BB/9, 7.35 H/9, 0.26 HR/9, 30 CG's
To put that into words, we're talking about a pitcher who ate tons of innings and completed nearly 40% of the games he started. He also struck out a batter per inning while limiting the walks and hits and allowing virtually no homers. There is nothing not to like here, with the possible exception of his heavy workloads at a young age.
How well will he translate to the majors? I'm going to use Yu Darvish as a comp, not because the two necessarily have similar styles but because Darvish is the only other ace-level pitcher to come from Japan in recent years. Daisuke Matsuzaka could be a comp, but his MLB career was mostly ruined by injuries so it's tough say how good he could have been here.
Darvish also left Japan after his age-24 season, and his numbers in NPB were similar to Tanaka's. Darvish's strikeout and walk rates were both slightly higher, but otherwise they enjoyed about the same level of dominance. When Darvish came to America, he generally maintained his abilities to rack up strikeouts and to limit hits while seeing spikes in his allowances of walks and home runs. These changes make sense. You either have swing-or-miss stuff or you don't, and a slow grounder or a popup is an out in any league so you aren't likely to give up more hits if you can induce weak contact. However, MLB hitters are probably better at laying off of close pitches (and thus drawing walks) and are definitely better at hitting homers (NPB just went through a dead-ball phase which deflated power numbers across the league). Matsuzaka's move to MLB came with the same result in his first two seasons -- he remained good at piling up K's and limiting hits, but saw an increase in walks and homers.
This doesn't mean that Tanaka will be as good as Darvish. What it does mean is that Tanaka possesses two skills -- high strikeout rate and low hit rate -- which seem to translate well from NPB to MLB, with a great chance to limit the two things -- walks and homers -- which are likely to get worse.
But, seriously, $20 million per yer?!?!
I don't know. Sure, why not. With the way revenue has skyrocketed in recent years, I have no idea what money is worth in baseball anymore. If someone out there says that the A's have money to spend, then maybe they do. They're already looking at the highest payroll in franchise history, so this is the time to go all-in for a title.
Zack Greinke set the market for ace pitchers last winter at about $24 million. Kershaw is likely to raise that bar to $30 million before the end of the year. By the end of Tanaka's contract, $20 million could be the going rate for the 2019 equivalent of Ricky Nolasco. Or hey, maybe Beane pulls off the trick that he did with Cespedes and offers Tanaka an insane annual salary on a shorter, four-year contract, thus allowing him to hit free agency again before he's 30. Oakland has nobody under contract past 2015, so there is no long-term payroll jam stopping Beane from inking a young asset with the potential to be an elite performer.
I'm not saying that this is likely. The A's are probably not going to sign Tanaka. But there could be crazier outcomes than the hurler landing with an internationally famous organization (two words: Brad Pitt) on the West Coast (supposedly his preference) who is competing for a title while playing in a pitcher's park. And there are worse things for the A's to spend their money on than a mid-twenties pitching phenom with virtually no injury history. Billy Beane should absolutely go for it.