SAN FRANCISCO -- The Giants are downplaying the chances they could land Masahiro Tanaka, the latest pitching sensation from Japan with a disappearing splitter and golden scouting reports.
And yet, almost everyone in the organization who owns a stopwatch and a Panama hat has traveled to Japan to see him pitch. (OK, so Pat Burrell probably doesn’t own a Panama hat.)
Does "A" plus "B" equal a stealth run at one of the offseason’s biggest prizes?
Could the Giants be downplaying their involvement on Tanaka? Could they be willing to fork over a posting fee expected to be in excess of $60 or even $70 million, and then guarantee a contract worth a similar amount, to a 24-year-old who hasn’t thrown one pitch in the big leagues?
Well, they aren’t ruling it out -- on or off the record.
As GM Brian Sabean said shortly after the season ended when asked about making an international splash: “I don't know about a splash. It'd probably be a longshot, more of the homework being done and getting more immersed in how that market works and how we can get involved.”
They certainly got involved on Jose Dariel Abreu, the slugging first baseman from Cuba who signed a six-year, $68 million contract with the Chicago White Sox. Sources tell me the Giants made an offer to Abreu for a similar average annual value, but couldn’t guarantee a sixth year to a player who profiles as a designated hitter in the not-so-distant future.
If the Abreu pursuit proves anything, though, it’s that the Giants didn’t exhaust their coffers when they brought back Tim Lincecum for two years and $35 million. They plan to spend money to find a right-handed hitter, preferably in left field, and address the two vacancies in their rotation.
Should Tanaka be their top priority? Let’s weigh some pros and cons:
1. Tanaka’s stuff should translate. He probably won’t go 24-0 with a 1.24 ERA as a big league rookie, as he did this past season for Tohoku Rakuten Eagles of the Japanese Pacific League. But he throws consistently in the mid-90s, and while he doesn’t have Yu Darvish’s expansive repertoire, his splitter is a wipeout pitch. He profiles as a No. 2 starter, at minimum.
2. There isn’t another pitcher of Tanaka’s quality on the free-agent market. And three of the better ones, Ervin Santana, Ubaldo Jimenez and Hiroki Kuroda, would cost a draft pick after receiving qualifying offers. Even Ricky Nolasco, a mid-rotation starter with No. 4 stuff, probably will get four years and $50 million. The best the Giants could hope to do would be to sign one or two innings eaters such as Bronson Arroyo or Dan Haren on shorter-term contracts. That probably won’t be enough to compete with the Dodgers’ staff, even if they get bounce-back years from Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum. The Giants won two World Series with pitching and defense. If they’re going to get back, shouldn’t they invest in pitching and defense?
3. Not like the Giants need to capture the marketplace, but no signing would invigorate the region more than Tanaka. It would lead to more international exposure, which is never bad for the brand. No other free agent would be more marketable or would attract more new fans.
4. The posting system is being revamped by Nippon Professional Baseball and MLB, but reports indicate that the top bidder still would get exclusive negotiating rights. As it stands now, any posting fee would not be subject to the luxury tax, which means clubs like the Yankees and Dodgers have an additional incentive to ante up. The Giants aren’t near the luxury tax threshold, but they do have $384 million in future salary committed -- more than every team except the Dodgers and Angels -- so they could find themselves inching into that territory. The posting fee exemption could have positive future implications for them, then.
5. Signing Tanaka would keep him away from the Dodgers. Simple enough, right?
1. Tanaka hasn’t thrown a pitch in the big leagues. For every Yu Darvish, there’s a Daisuke Matsuzaka or Kei Igawa or Hideki Irabu. It’s a massive risk, especially if you place a premium value on track record as Sabean does.
2. As mentioned, the Giants already have a lot of money committed. If Tanaka ends up being a $150 million bust, it could lead to some massive payroll inflexibility for the better part of this decade.
3. Signing Tanaka probably means going cheap in left field. It’s not like there are a lot of choices out there anyway (Marlon Byrd, anyone?), but signing Tanaka likely would give the Giants enough belief they can return to the pitching-and-defense model that they could try to get by with a platoon of Gregor Blanco and a right-handed platoon partner not named Andres Torres in left field. You OK with that?
4. Tanaka has a lot of mileage on his arm. Just last week, one day after throwing 160 pitches in a playoff, game, Tanaka hurled a scoreless inning of relief. That would never happen in the U.S., obviously, and you have to wonder how that kind of usage could impact his future performance. Then again, Giants vice president Dick Tidrow wasn’t sold on drafting Tim Lincecum until he saw him throw a heavy pitch count in a college game and then play pole-to-pole long toss the following day. Some arms just have the ability to bounce back. (The split is considered a tough pitch on the elbow, too.)
5. The Giants already used the “Professor Tanaka” nickname on Kensuke Tanaka.
So what do you think? Should the Giants make Tanaka their top priority this winter?