We've heard various rumors about the Japanese pitcher Masahiro Tanaka, who will likely be posted this offseason and whose suitors include the New York Yankees and Chicago Cubs, among others. Earlier today, Anno's ESPN Ticker went off with this news:
ESPN uses MLB sources to report Cubs will make signing Japanese P Masahiro Tanaka one of top offseason priorities
— WorldSeriesDreaming (@WSDreaming_Cubs) October 26, 2013
This is not surprising given how few places the Cubs can throw their money in this current baseball economic climate. The top free agents, such as Robinson Cano, Jacoby Ellsbury and Shin-Soo Choo, will be expensive and on the further side of old by the time they hypothetically don Cubs pinstripes. The rest of the free agent class have more questions than a standardized test. The best place to throw money, other than at those top of the pile free agents, is at foreign free agents. HardballTalk just posted a blog about the Cubs' priority to sign Tanaka:
Phil Rogers of MLB.com was told by sources that Tanaka has become a “top priority” for the Cubs’ front office. The club is expected to have a large contingent in attendance to watch him pitch in the Japan Series, which begins this weekend.
It is a Phil Rogers report so I guess you take it with a grain of salt, but sometimes Crazy Uncle Phil has a good nugget.
I've read elsewhere that Tanaka is not considered to be as good as Yu Darvish, but his age and his dominance in Japan is hard to ignore. Tanaka is only 24, which means whoever signs him will be getting a fairly durable pitcher in his prime. He seems unhittable and has superb command as well, though it's difficult to know how well that translates to MLB. Darvish's success in Texas is encouraging and maybe Tanaka can duplicate that success on the North Side (or wherever he ends up in MLB), but other than both being Japanese, I'm not sure how similar each is. We'll have to hunt down a scouting report later on, but if the Cubs front office is making this a top priority, there has to be a very good reason and I assume the scouting report will be glowing.
Update: Found a scouting report from Ben Badler of Baseball America (because to hell with Bleacher Report):
Tanaka has earned attention for his perfect 17-0 record, while his more meaningful numbers—a 1.20 ERA with 130 strikeouts and 22 walks in 158 innings—have also been impressive. His ERA is the lowest in all of NPB, his strikeouts rank second in the PL and his 1.3 walks per nine innings rank second among starting pitchers with at least 50 innings in the PL.
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.
I guess they'll have to fix that flat fastball, but those other pitches sound dreamy. The numbers have since been updated, to 24-0 with a a 1.27 ERA and 183/32 K/BB ratio over 212 regular season innings. So Japan can't hit him. Makes you wonder about MLB, again, but that kind of command and pitch selection is hard to find anywhere.
My assumption is that because the free agent market is relatively weak and certain contracts may have inflated potential contracts, the fact that Tanaka is the best Japanese product available means that his posting fee and eventual contract may rival Darvish's, even if he's not as good as Darvish. The stats in Japan suggest that he's "good enough" so I would not be disappointed with such a signing. Tanaka coming to the Cubs may in fact coincide with the promotion of various impact Cubs prospects, so I can see why more priority is being placed on this signing than with Darvish two seasons ago, even with a not-as-good pitcher. But again, "good enough."
Here's to smart money finding its mark.