Process leaves Tanaka with sky-high expectations
With new posting rules, the teams that miss out on righty will also be known
When Leo Durocher moved Fergie Jenkins from the Cubs' bullpen into the rotation in 1967, Jenkins was 24 years old and already with his second organization. He would go on to use his fastball and hard slider to win 285 games, including seven 20-win seasons.
Curt Schilling started 34 games in his age-26 season for the Phillies, his third organization. He would go on to win 216 games for five organizations, playing a major role for Arizona in winning the 2001 World Series, when he was 34, and for Boston in winning in '04 and '07, when he was respectively 37 and 40.
Dave Stewart got 27 starts in his age-27 season for the Texas Rangers, but it would be three years later before he had mastered his forkball sufficiently to become a 30-plus start guy for the Oakland A's. He won only 168 games in his career, but in one dominating run was 84-45 over four seasons, three of which included trips to the World Series.
When a pitcher is 25, like Japanese ace Masahiro Tanaka, you think you have a pretty good idea who he is and who he is going to become. But there are comparisons to be made between Jenkins (who had left only a small imprint on Major League Baseball into his mid-20s), Schilling (who has a similar frame and approach to pitching), and Stewart (who might throw the most like him). Few thought they were going to be truly special pitchers in their mid-20s.
Take away their back stories, make them all 25 when Spring Training begins next month and have them throw side by side on bullpen mounds. It would be fascinating to listen to men like Bobby Cox, Dave Duncan, Rick Honeycutt, Dave Righetti and Yadier Molina evaluate their relative strengths and weaknesses and, ultimately, arrive at projections for their careers.
Maybe then we'd get an idea at what could be realistically expected for Tanaka in 2014 and beyond. But here's what we can say: No matter where Tanaka signs later this week, he will reach Major League Baseball with elite talent and possibly the most visibility for a newcomer ever.
The timing of Tanaka's posting by the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles, along with Tanaka's legendary performance in the 2013 season, has made Tanaka an offseason object of curiosity/affection for North American fans that far exceeds the buzz about Daisuke Matsuzaka in 2007 and Yu Darvish in 2012.
Because Tanaka was posted after the 2013 season, when the bidding process was opened to more teams in an overhaul that widely expanded his options, he has been in the center of baseball discussion for at least two months now. The first month was spent with discussions of changes in the system being negotiated between MLB and Nippon Professional Baseball, and how those changes could impact Tanaka, fresh off his 24-0 season and Japan Series championship with the Golden Eagles.
Then there were questions about whether Rakuten president Yozo Tachibana would hang on to Tanaka rather than accept a mere $20 million for his services, and finally the tight-lipped bidding itself, which is being run by Tanaka and agent Casey Close. Unlike Matsuzaka and Darvish, Tanaka's decision will wind up on the permanent record of many teams, not just the one that gets him.
Under the old blind bidding process in the posting rules, the only thing known at the end was the price of the high bid and the team placing it. Who really finished second for Darvish? Who was the runner-up for Matsuzaka? Baseball legend has it that the Mets and Yankees were the runners-up for Matsuzaka, with the Blue Jays the only team believed to have placed a bid close to the winning one for Darvish.
While Texas fans anticipate Darvish's starts the way they once did those by Nolan Ryan, there's little angst over him with fans of the teams that didn't get him, as was true with Matsuzaka. But the perception that Tanaka can be a franchise-changing player has raised the stakes for the teams that have a chance to get him.
When the Tanaka sweepstakes is decided, it will be cause for a major celebration by the team that gets him. His presence will become a primary focus for the 2014 season and beyond. But among the other teams that have been widely reported as finalists, his absence will be an educing storyline.
Tanaka isn't the only available starting pitcher, of course, but it feels like a Yankees offseason that included the addition of Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann and Carlos Beltran would be an exercise in treading water if Brian Cashman doesn't close a deal for Tanaka. They've done nothing to improve a rotation that had a 4.08 ERA last season, so it could be a nightmare to watch Tanaka succeed elsewhere.
Tanaka is not going to make the Cubs a winner in 2014, but he would signal that Theo Epstein's baseball operations department has gotten its roster into the back stretch in position to make a charge in '15 or '16. His signing would energize the fan base and take some heat off Tom Ricketts. To come close and not get him would bring back memories of a near-miss on Yoenis Cespedes.
It doesn't seem the Dodgers or White Sox have as much to lose as the Yankees and Cubs. But with Tanaka, the Dodgers become even more of a powerhouse with the ability to dominate the National League; the White Sox become arguably the biggest winner of the offseason, putting Tanaka with Jose Abreu and Adam Eaton (alongside July 31 addition Avisail Garcia) to become a truly interesting stew.
For the White Sox's Rick Hahn or the general manager of a team on the Tanaka periphery -- the Mariners' Jack Zduriencik, the Rangers' Jon Daniels or the Angels' Jerry Dipoto, to name three -- it would be the coups of a career to land Tanaka.
Especially if he lives up to the massive expectations he'll carry.
Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.