The free-agent market got a little deeper last week. One of this offseason’s unanswered questions was whether Masahiro Tanaka would be able to play in the United States in 2014. This had been by no means certain as Tanaka’s team in Japan, the Rakuten Golden Eagles, spent a month publicly waffling over whether they would allow their ace to be posted. With Tanaka officially cleared to sign an MLB contract, the interesting question now is which uniform he ends up wearing.
In a shallow free-agent market, Tanaka is in a position to bring in an impressive amount of cash in return for that new uniform. While every team should at least consider Tanaka and do their homework — the posting fee, which maxes out at $20 million, is paid only by the team that eventually lands him — not every team is going to be willing to spend nine figures on any free agent, let alone one who has never played in the U.S.
Estimating the performance of an NPB player isn’t easy, given that we have few examples of major league players moving back and forth over the Pacific. Tanaka’s bread-and-butter pitch is a nasty split-fingered fastball that should induce ground balls and silly swings in the majors. He also has a fastball that can hit the mid-90s, though without a lot of movement, a solid slider and a curve that probably won’t be used too heavily in MLB.
Tanaka had a terrific record in Japan — 24-0 in 2013 — but he’s also not likely to be as good as Yu Darvish has been. They’re not really similar pitchers, though the comparison is inevitable because of their shared Japanese heritage, but Darvish struck out nearly 11 batters per nine innings in his final season in Japan, a number Tanaka hasn’t ever touched (7.8 in his 2013 season).
Despite these caveats, ZiPS projects Tanaka as the most valuable pitcher available in free agency this year. ZiPS estimates a mean projection (neutral park/league) of a 3.46 ERA in 190 innings from Tanaka, for an ERA+ of 117 and 3.9 WAR. The 117 ERA+ projected compares favorably to the 124 ERA+ projected for David Price in a neutral park. While Price comes out a little better in the comparison, signing Tanaka has the fringe benefit of not necessitating the Rays stealing some of your best prospects.