David Lennon has been a staff writer for Newsday since 1991, when he started covering New York City
The Yankees planned to spend whatever was necessary to pry Masahiro Tanaka from the Rakuten Golden Eagles. They made these plans even before a new posting system was in place -- and even before Rakuten had decided to let him go.
Obviously, the Yankees had done their homework. At a total cost of $175 million, Tanaka looks more like a bargain with every start. He's 9-1 with a 2.02 ERA.
As a result, what major-league clubs are looking for now, to put it bluntly, is the next Tanaka, another Japanese pitching star who can make not only a seamless transition to the States but an immediate impact.
There is a short list of candidates, some closer than others. But in trying to extract world-class pitchers from Japan's professional leagues -- or maybe even out of high school -- it's not as simple as merely scouting the talent.
At the most basic level, a Japanese player must want to come to the majors, which is what puts Kenta Maeda -- the current ace of the Hiroshima Carp -- in line to be the darling of the posting crowd come November. Just as Tanaka told Rakuten last season of his desire to play in the States, Maeda already has alerted Hiroshima that he has the same intention, and scouts believe he will succeed here.
"He's not Tanaka," one major-league executive said. "But he's the next-best thing."
In good company
Considering the fact that few, if any, are pitching at Tanaka's level right now, just mentioning Maeda in the same sentence is high praise. Recently, he's been bothered by a triceps issue, and he was outdueled by the Nippon Ham Fighters' Shohei Otani -- more on him later -- this past week. But in nearly seven seasons, Maeda, a 26-year-old righthander, has a career 2.43 ERA and a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 3.75. Tanaka had a 2.30 ERA and a 4.50 SO/W in his seven years with Rakuten.
Unlike Tanaka's brilliant farewell tour, however -- "a once- in-a-generation performance," the executive said -- Maeda is not saving his best for last. He currently has a 2.68 ERA, and his 6.7 SO/9 ratio is down from 8.1 last season.
Maeda uses an assortment of pitches that are similar to Tanaka's, with a max velocity around 95 mph. His splitter is not Tanaka-caliber, but his situation with Hiroshima is comparable to what Tanaka went through as Rakuten's ace a year ago.
The Carp lead the NPB's Central Division and are strong contenders this season. If they wind up winning the Japan Series -- as the Golden Eagles did last October -- it would make posting Maeda a more palatable decision for Hiroshima.
As much as Maeda might want to pitch in the majors, ultimately the decision comes down to the NPB team, and the new posting rules -- put in place last December after somewhat contentious negotiations -- are not as favorable to Japanese clubs as they once were.
The max posting fee now is $20 million, and any major-league team that pledges the amount can negotiate with the player. Compare that with the $51.7 million the Fighters made on Darvish or the $51 million the Seibu Lions got for Daisuke Matsuzaka.
To put it mildly, Rakuten was disappointed with its haul for Tanaka, who parlayed his freedom into a record six-year, $155-million deal with the Yankees. But the next team won't be coping with dashed expectations. The Carp know what to expect, and $20 million is still a decent windfall for a Japanese team. The average NPB payroll is only $20 million to $25 million for an entire roster.
"I think the most important thing -- looking at what Tanaka did last year -- is he had a dominating performance for the whole season," Hiroki Kuroda said through an interpreter. "Not only did he convince the ballclub he was ready, but he convinced the fans by taking the team to a championship, so it was kind of difficult for [Rakuten] not to do it."
Kuroda went the free-agent route in departing Hiroshima for the Dodgers after the 2007 season, but that takes time. A Japanese player needs eight years of service time for domestic free agency, and nine if he wants to play outside the country.
One of NPB's top pitchers right now, Chihiro Kaneko, is in the former category. Some view Kaneko, a 30-year-old righthander, as better than Maeda, and he's having a Tanaka-type year for the Orix Buffaloes. His 4-3 record aside, Kaneko has a 1.25 ERA in 10 starts with a SO/9 ratio of 11.6, superior to Darvish's 10.7 during his final season with the Nippon Ham Fighters.
The issue for potential U.S. suitors, as one official explained it, is that Kaneko has no interest in pitching in the majors. The belief is that he will sign with the Yomiuri Giants, which is bad news for major-league clubs. The Giants are the Yankees of the NPB, known for their long history of success and ability to hoard talent. On principle, they don't post players. Hideki Matsui and Koji Uehara, two huge stars for Yomiuri, had to wait for free agency to start their careers in the States.
Tanaka has shown that the new posting agreement, which is in effect for three years, can be incredibly lucrative for Japanese players. Could $150 million change Kaneko's mind? Possibly. But those who have bolted to the majors say that the additional money -- or the ability to pick the team of your choice -- won't necessarily sway those who aren't determined to compete in the States.
"The primary reason for all the Japanese players probably is to play at a higher level of baseball," Kuroda said. "The financial stuff comes next."
On the horizon
Maeda is expected to get a nice payday. But the Japanese pitcher who could come closest to generating the same type of Tanaka-mania is Otani, a 19-year-old pitching prodigy of the Fighters.
Upon graduation from high school, Otani first told NPB teams not to draft him because he wanted to go straight to the majors. But after Nippon picked him No. 1 overall, Otani was persuaded to stay, a strong indication that the Fighters already may have promised to post him whenever he chooses to go.
Otani -- a good hitter -- wanted to play the outfield, too, and the Fighters allow him to do that occasionally (he has a slash line of .283/.343/.457). At 6-4, with a fastball clocked at 99, Otani is more of a classic power pitcher than Tanaka, and it appears he'll likely get to the majors around the same age of 25, if not sooner. He is 5-1 with a 3.13 ERA and a 9.7 SO/9 ratio in nine starts in 2014.
What Otani will command in terms of salary a few years from now is anyone's guess (hint: take the over). But now that Tanaka has raised the bar -- for both paydays and performance -- the market for Japanese pitchers could be more competitive than ever in the future.
Will it yield another Tanaka? Maybe. But there's no way of knowing that until he gets here.