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The Mariners and Tanaka: a serious pursuit makes more sense than ever

Koji Watanabe

Masahiro Tanaka wants to play baseball at the highest level next year. Though his club, the Rakuten Eagles, has put on a full-court press in an effort to change his mind, he remains steadfast—and most agree that he will be posted.

It isn't as if the Eagles are choosing between the almost-laughable $20 million release fee and nothing. They have him signed for two more years, and there's reason to think that he could fetch the same $20 million next year, after an attempt by the Eagles to defend their crown. In addition, the beloved "Mā-kun" means a lot to the Eagles' supporters, many of whom are still reeling from the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that devastated Japan's Tohoku region, where the club is based.

But, again, most assume that when the Eagles' decision comes in—and it is expected to come soon—they will post Tanaka and give him the opportunity to compete against the top ballplayers in the world. Reports are even coming in now that he will indeed be posted.

As you're likely aware, Masahiro Tanaka was a key part—or, the biggest part—of the offseason plan published on this site back at the beginning of November. Internally, nothing has changed—we all still strongly believe the Mariners should make a serious run at Tanaka. Externally, with the club and the league, much has changed.

And now a Tanaka signing makes more sense than ever.

The biggest reason is the Mariners' current predicament—specifically, they've built a roster that's considerably closer to contending than it was when this offseason began, and it makes even more sense now to spend to add the pieces requisite for true contention.

Standing out, most of all, is the signing of Robinson Cano. Right now, he's one of the 5-10 best position players in the game. As the years go on—and his mega-deal goes from a bargain to an albatross—that rank will slip. While we can hope desperately for a bounce, or at least a late-career plateau, the likelihood remains Robinson Cano has played his best baseball and will get progressively worse every year for the rest of his career. It's a bummer, and I'm holding out hope it isn't true, but even though Cano is starting his inevitable decline at such a lofty point, the Mariners shouldn't waste even a single year of his prime.

This inevitable decay of Cano's value, and the facts behind it, are what makes Tanaka so appealing. He's young, he's good—and he could get better. He's Hisashi Iwakuma with better health and more upside. It makes all the sense in the world for the Mariners to counterbalance some of Cano's decline with potential improvement from Tanaka. It's why Tanaka, despite the Mariners' need for outfielders and hitters, makes more sense than Shin-Soo Choo.

It's unbelievably rare that an elite player reaches free agency before his peak. Of course, every other club with interest in Tanaka and money to spend is thinking the same thing.

And it's the latter issue here that is of the most concern—do the Mariners have the money? And honestly, I don't know why they wouldn't.

The Mariners payroll last year end up in the low $80 million range, despite Howard Lincoln saying later that the club's payroll was actually intended to be around $95 million; they just didn't spend the money:

Lincoln said the payroll budget for the upcoming season will be higher than what the team budgeted last season. The team budgeted close to $95 million  for payroll last season, but only used about $84 million.

“It’s certainly going to be above what we budgeted last year,” Lincoln said. “How much? For competitive purposes, I’m not prepared to say. But it certainly is not going to go down.”

So there’s that.

And payroll should go up, for a number of reasons. But I hope I don't hear that it did if the payroll only ends up in the $95 million range, because that wouldn't be entirely true.

But, on those reasons for the increase: among them, as you could assume, is the cable revenue. At this point, I'll buy what others—and Howard Lincoln in particular—are saying on the recently-signed local cable deal, that the Mariners majority ownership stake in the regional sports network required a sizable investment. But the thing is, there's more than just the RSN money, as new national cable deals go into effect this year with ESPN and Fox/Turner that double the league's national cable revenue—with each club likely seeing an additional $15-25 million.

So if every team is receiving more money and you're keeping the budgeted payroll the same—as the Mariners would do if they ended up around $95-100 million—aren't you effectively lowering it? And if they do that, it grows increasingly more difficult not to wonder where all the new revenue is going.

But, what I've heard from various reporters, is that the Mariners would raise payroll for the right player. Or in other words, payroll has been up, and it just takes the right guy to sign. It's hard to envision a better fit than Tanaka, as Shannon Drayer notes at the end of a piece today:

My best guess is that general manager Jack Zduriencik is getting close to his budget and with multiple needs to fill he cannot sink all of what he has left into one player. There still could be flexibility with ownership, but Zduriencik would have to sell that player to the group. I think he would have a much better shot at selling Japanese pitcher Masahiro Tanaka, who with the new agreement in place could be posted soon. They might be willing to take that risk on a younger player, even though he is a pitcher, and they wouldn't be settling. Choo is the best offensive player remaining on the market. Tanaka is arguably the best pitcher period.

So the Mariners might not have enough money to spend. Or they very well could. Of course, if they do decide to spend, that doesn't mean they'll automatically land Tanaka. They'll have their competitors, but there's no reason to think they can't spend enough to make a lot of the teams uncomfortable.

Most have assumed that the Yankees have been waiting for Tanaka, and their latest dives into the bargain bin for relief and infield help sure make it seem that way, but Passan reports today that their internal luxury tax count—even without Alex Rodriguez's money—takes them all the way to $178 million.

Heyman says they're still going to try, but I don't see how they could make it work and stay under the luxury tax. They could blow right by it, but if they don't, they can't sign Tanaka. The new posting system hurts them more than any MLB team, as the original plan was likely to put in an exorbitant posting fee bid (not counted against the tax) and then work out a contract that fits under the $189 million limit. But now, it's free agency with a buy-in, and the AAV of Tanaka's deal—the figure that counts against the tax—will certainly be above the $11 million the Yankees supposedly have to work with.

The Yankees, of course, are far from the only suitor—and there's the one club out there to which money supposedly doesn't mean a thing. Or does it? According to a recent report, the Dodgers have interest in Tanaka but " won't take a win-at-all-costs approach in their pursuit of him."

Then, of course, you have everyone like us—there may be money to spend, but no one knows for sure. The Cubs, for example, have been said to be a potential major player. Theo Epstein has even been quoted as saying "We wish there was a free-agent market for young players," and Tanaka's timeline fits more with theirs than any other available player. So, this may negate Theo also saying "We're not ready to make a big splash," but it very well may not.

There are more than the obvious players too—even though there's plenty of those. The Diamondbacks have even leaked that Tanaka is their top priority.

But here's why I'm optimistic with the other clubs that have been waiting, and planning their offseason's around Tanaka: if other clubs have to plan their offseasons around Tanaka, they have restraints. There may be levels of variance in those restraints, but you'd have to assume they're there.

The Mariners, if they're smart, should have no such restraints. The projected revenue is there, and even if the cash isn't right this moment, it should be very soon. It's smart to be reasonable with money, but outbidding everyone on Tanaka—a potentially-elite pitcher just entering his prime—is reasonable.

The Mariners' roster has holes, undoubtedly. And Tanaka doesn't immediately take the Mariners to contender status—but boy, you're getting close. The Mariners have shown they're willing to spend the money required to add a top free agent. But if they don't do it again, if don't they continue to add this roster, then it's all for naught.

It feels absurd to say, but also incredible: the time is now for the Mariners.

And they better act like it.