Major League Baseball fans and executives finally found what they were looking for under the Christmas tree.
The news that Masahiro Tanaka is headed west.
Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles president Yozo Tachibana met with the ace pitcher Wednesday morning and the team agreed to allow him to make the jump to the major leagues via the posting system, even though changes to the system (including a cap on posting fees) mean less money for Rakuten in the long run.
“We have considered that the new posting system has issues, and as for the (cap on posting fees), we felt it was unclear why it had to be that amount,” Tachibana said during a news conference Wednesday.
“However we thought highly of Tanaka, who not only helped us win the Japan Series title this year, but has also contributed to us in the last seven years. We took that into consideration and our owner (Hiroshi Mikitani) approved Tanaka’s transfer to the major leagues and we came to the decision to post him.”
A number of MLB teams, including the New York Yankees, Los Angeles Dodgers, Chicago Cubs, and many, many others, have already indicated an interest in the 25-year-old right-hander, whose status in limbo for the past week essentially caused the MLB free-agent market for starting pitchers to grind to a halt.
The Eagles will part ways with Tanaka despite being guaranteed only a maximum posting fee of $20 million under the auspices of the recently agreed to posting agreement between Nippon Professional Baseball and the major leagues.
That’s a far cry from the $51.1 million the Seibu Lions pocketed from posting Daisuke Matsuzaka in 2006, or the record $51.7 million the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters collected for Yu Darvish’s rights after the 2011 season.
Tanaka announced on Dec. 17, that he’d asked for the chance to head to the majors, but the changes to the posting system left Rakuten wanting to access all its options, which included keeping the pitcher for at least another year. Tanaka would’ve reached the requirement for international free agency sometime during the 2015 season.
“We’ve heard opinions that we should let Tanaka go to the majors while we received opinions that we should let him stay given the circumstances this time. We have gotten such varied opinions,” Tachibana said.
After mulling it over for a week, the Eagles acquiesced.
“He looked relieved,” Tachibana said of Tanaka’s reaction to the club’s decision. “Yet for him the negotiations begin from now. (But) to me, he looked relieved.
“To be honest with you, he’s a very important player to us and that’s not going to change. We told him today that we hoped him to be a pitcher that represents Japan.”
The new posting agreement will allow Tanaka to negotiate with any team that submits a max bid, though only the team to actually sign the pitcher will be required to pay the posting fee. Under the previous system, Japanese players were limited to negotiating with only the MLB club that submitted the highest bid and forced to return to Japan for at least one season in the event the two sides failed to come to agreement on a contract.
There’s expected to be a feeding frenzy once Tanaka is officially put up for posting, which according to some reports could be as early as Thursday night.
Tanaka heads to North America on the heels of one of the finest seasons ever produced by a pitcher on either side of the Pacific.
Tanaka went 24-0 with a save in 28 appearances during the regular season, posting a 1.27 ERA, 0.94 WHIP and 183 strikeouts in 212 innings. He added another two wins and a pair of saves in the postseason, helping to lead Rakuten to the first Japan Series title in franchise history.
“It’s unheard of to see what he’s done,” Eagles pitcher Brandon Duckworth told The Japan Times during the Japan Series in November. “Normally you just have some bad breaks, but he’s seemed to overcome any adversity whatsoever, make pitches and never game in.”
Tanaka was named the Pacific League MVP after the season and also took home his second Sawamura Award.
He brings a formidable arsenal with him to the majors, but it’s Tanaka’s split-finger fastball that had MLB scouts talking throughout the summer. Tanaka’s fastball is something to be reckoned with on its own, and makes the splitter that much harder.
“That splitter is nasty,” Yomiuri Giants outfielder John Bowker said to The Japan Times prior to Game 2 of the Japan Series. “You’ve got to respect his fastball. I think he can do well in the States. It depends on how he adjusts to pitching every five days as opposed to once a week.”
The news of Tanaka’s impending departure was likely music to the ears of the other 11 NPB clubs.
“His year was one of the best,” Chiba Lotte Marines slugger Craig Brazell said in November. “You can’t say anything bad about what he did this year. Hope he goes to the majors so we don’t have to face him any more.”
Staff writer Kaz Nagatsuka contributed to this report