Masahiro Tanaka is coming to town. The hot stove didn't stop boiling over Christmas break, and the most important news of all was finally confirmed by the Rakuten Golden Eagles - Tanaka is coming stateside. The potential destinations started flying immediately. The Cubs were going to be all in. The Yankees desperately need Tanaka, opined Peter Gammons. Perhaps the Rangers could even dig deeper into their pockets, even after Shin-Soo Choo. The Diamondbacks are expected to go hard, making their desires for a starting pitcher known to all. Even the Angels and Arte Moreno's endless pockets are being mentioned as a serious suitor.
The Seattle Mariners? Not so much as a whisper. Though they've been loosely linked to Tanaka before, scouting him and getting a few mentions here and there along the way, they have remained very quiet in pursuit, and looking for connections to the Japanese ace are getting few and far between. This morning, I saw Joel Sherman tweet about Tanaka's services, and it was followed by a large number of team hashtags. I got a little excited when I saw one of them to be "#mariners" - why?
For a long time, we've been pushing hard for Tanaka here. Colin wrote last week that the time was right to make a move. Tanaka was a critical part of our off-season plan - the centerpiece, in fact. The Mariners have a glaring hole at starting pitcher, have reportedly stated their desire to acquire one, and Tanaka represents the rare chance to land a free agent in the middle of his prime.
Instead, all we hear are rumors about Nelson Cruz. For what could be $15 million a year. 33, coming off PEDs, and worth 1.5 wins or less in three years running. The Mariners need another right-handed bat, they need power, their offense isn't good enough. That's the narrative, and it's a snowball effect. Nobody else besides the Orioles appears to be that hot on Cruz, him and Cano are friends, and it's off to the races. Nobody seems willing to take a step back and re-evaluate, but we should.
If the Mariners are sinking $15 million a year (I'll be pessimistic) into Cruz, then why can't they spend $20 million a year on Tanaka? The Mariners might have to blow other offers out of the water to land somebody like him, but even coming in hot at 7 year, $140 million would control Tanaka through all the years Nelson Cruz has already lived. The Mariners clearly want an ace given their interest in David Price, and in that very interest they've demonstrated that they'll add more salary, even a significant amount for the "right player," if you believe that now infamous article.
Add in Seattle's long-standing history with Japanese baseball players, their closer proximity to Japan, and their current employment of ex-Rakuten Golden Eagle Hisashi Iwakuma, and you start to wonder why the Mariners aren't one of the most heavily connected teams.
Maybe the Mariners are scared of the risk in acquiring Tanaka, and that's fair. He's had a heavy workload, he's yet to face elite competition, and even though his numbers are staggering, so were Dice-K's. You never truly know how a pitcher from another league is going to translate until you actually see it happen, and with the cost to find out increasing to record levels, it's riskier than ever. The Mariners already took a gigantic risk this off-season by paying a second basemen $24 million/year until he's 40, and Tanaka would be doubling down on that risk. If Cano falls apart and Tanaka tanks, the Mariners could have ~$45 million in dead payroll every year for the next six or seven years.
That's terrifying. But it's a situation the Mariners chose to put themselves in when they decided to play with the big boys. The Angels have had a bunch of bad contracts, but they've decided to cover them up by spending more. The Rangers will likely be faced with something similar as Prince Fielder and Shin-Shoo Choo enter their mid-30s, but they'll probably spend more too. This is the nature of the beast, and even though it isn't the smartest way to go about operating a baseball team, you can't deny the massive level of success teams have had employing this strategy for years.
Now the Mariners are at a crossroads when it comes to Tanaka. Maybe they're really just lying in the weeds, but I have my suspicions that they're simply scared of taking that next huge step, especially for a risky player like Tanaka. As I said before, it's very rare indeed to see a player hit free agency at 25, but it's also rare to see that player get paid like he's already proven he can perform at the major league level.
Tanaka's deadline is January 24th, which leaves little room for the domestic three to negotiate, as we call them. If the Mariners don't want Tanaka, they could always attempt to take advantage of a cool market for Ubaldo Jimenez instead, paying less for his services while everyone else goes hard for Tanaka. I also wonder just how crazy the bidding will be for Tanaka as the only remaining premium free agent, especially given the high-spending teams that are linked to him. Tanaka may simply price himself out of Seattle's comfort zone.
There has to be a line. While I love Tanaka and will continue to endorse him, that endorsement will start to fade as the cost continues to rise. If I'm the Mariners, I have to bow out if the cost to get Tanaka exceeds $150 million. While I do think the Mariners should start to operate like other big-budget clubs, I'm not convinced that they will, and if Cano and a potential Tanaka albatross fall apart, it could kill this franchise. Then again, I don't have much faith in this front office to build a smart, smaller budget team that can compete. It's either throw all caution to the wind or stay the course. It's an unsettling set of circumstances. One way or another, it's time for some clarity.