With rumors swirling and five teams waiting for his decision, one thing is for sure: Masahiro Tanaka is about to cash in. But the simple fact that the media has created hype surrounding Tanaka does not mean that he is a great fit for the Cubs. Here’s my take on what signing Tanaka would mean to the Cubs.
Things to know about Tanaka:
Masahiro Tanaka is a 6’2”, 25 year-old, right-handed pitcher that will be starting in the MLB beginning in 2014. The righty went 24-0 in Japan last season with an ERA of 1.27. And don’t think that Tanaka’s 2013 numbers were some sort of anomaly, he posted ERA’s of 1.27 and 1.87 in 2011 and 2012, respectively. In fact, his ERA has been 2.5 or below in each of the last five seasons. Tanaka’s WHIP has also been right around 1.00 in each of the past three seasons (0.87 in 2011, 1.03 in 2012, and 0.94 in 2013). His strikeout to walk ratio has been 593:78 in that span. Tanaka’s dominance against the Japanese league is undeniable. He has done all of this on a dominant sinking pitch (either a forkball or splitter depending on who you talk to) and a fastball that tops off in the mid to low nineties.
The problem is that it is hard to understand exactly what numbers in Japan may translate to in the major leagues. Remember that Kosuke Fukudome was supposedly a combination of the best of Ichiro’s defense, speed, and ability to make contact at the plate, and Hideki Matsui’s power. Instead, Fukudome was a major disappointment during his time in the major leagues (essentially combining Ichiro’s lack of power and Matsui’s lower batting average). Other Japanese players, such as Daisuke Matsuzaka (Dice-K) and Kazuo Matsui were similarly disappointing. Dice-K was especially disappointing given the massive posting fee and contract that it required to draw him to the Red Sox. Despite the abovementioned disappointments, there have been two Japanese superstars in the MLB: Ichiro and Yu Darvish.
Japan: One way to try to understand what Tanaka could be in the majors would be to look at his stats compared to those of Yu Darvish (who has been wildly successful) and Dice-K (who struggled throughout his major league career) while each was in Japan. The bottom line from such an analysis is that Tanaka’s numbers fall in between Darvish and Dice-K. Darvish posted sub-two ERAs and accumulated over 1,000 strikeouts in his final five seasons in Japan. His career WHIP in Japan was less than 1.00 as he overpowered players with his high-nineties fastball. Dice-K also posted stellar numbers, though his ERA was never less than 2.00 in Japan and his WHIP was under 1.00 in only one of his seasons in Japan. Additionally, Dice-K’s success in Japan allegedly came from his trademark “gyroball,” not overpowering velocity.
MLB: In 7 seasons in the MLB, Dice-K threw 707 innings with a career ERA of 4.52 and 1.41 career WHIP. His one successful year came in 2008, where he went 18-3 with a 2.90 ERA in 167 innings. His WHIP that year was 1.32, suggesting that his sub-3 ERA may have been somewhat of a fluke. Darvish, on the other hand, has pitched 400+ innings over his first two major league seasons. His ERA is 3.34, with a 1.17 WHIP. Control was clearly more of an issue for both Dice-K and Darvish in the MLB, but Darvish has been able to convert his Japanese league success to MLB success with an overpowering presence on the mound. He was utterly dominant for parts of 2012, and all of 2013. While it is unclear what this means precisely, Tanaka’s Japanese numbers more closely resemble those of Darvish than those of Dice-K. Regardless of what Japanese numbers mean exactly in the MLB, Tanaka’s numbers are impressive.
With all of this background information in mind, what are the plusses and minuses to the Cubs landing Tanaka?
Plusses: The Cubs have shown little willingness to invest in major free agents since the Ricketts’ bought the team. Theo and Hoyer have made it clear that they will invest heavily in free agency when they feel as though they have sufficiently developed the minor league system. Signing Tanaka would be a good faith showing to the fans that the Cubs are serious about bringing their young core of talented prospects (Javier Baez, Kris Bryant, Jorge Soler, Albert Almora, CJ Edwards, etc.) to the majors soon. It would also be a sign to other major league teams and players that the Cubs are ready to be major players in the free agent market again, and could possibly open up other opportunities via free agency or trade. Tanaka would immediately become one of the two best pitchers on the Cubs, if not the best. He would also give the Cubs a possible ace, though I think he projects as a 2-pitcher in the Cubs’ 5-man rotation long-term. Signing Tanaka would fill a major void in the Cubs’ system: young top-end pitching.
Minuses: The reports are that the five offers to Tanaka all exceed $100 million and 5 years. That is a lot of money to put into a totally unknown quantity. In a way, Tanaka reminds me more of Dice-K than of Darvish, in that he relies on a specialty pitch (his devastating splitter/forkball/sinker), rather than an overpowering fastball combined with other strong pitches. It is also rumored that Tanaka has needed to use high pitch counts to get deep into games. These high pitch counts could make Tanaka more susceptible to injury in both the long and short term. Or the numbers could indicate that he is very durable. At this point, it remains to be seen which of these will be true, creating another unknown regarding the righty. Additionally, the Cubs are not going to be competitive in 2014, regardless of whether Tanaka ends up in Chicago, so does it make sense to start spending on free agents now, when they are so far from fielding a competitive team?
Tanaka would be a great pick-up for the Cubs. Right now, the Cubs are a team that is desperate to acquire young talented players without losing any of their own young talented players. This philosophy has been geared toward the future. They are stockpiling their youth through the draft, but free agency provides a different opportunity, the opportunity to acquire young, major league-ready, talent. The problem is that young players rarely make it to free agency today (Clayton Kershaw being the most recent case-in-point, signing a long-term deal before making it to free agency). Tanaka thus gives the Cubs a rare opportunity to improve the depth of their organization. Better yet, Tanaka is a pitcher, which would help them fill their most desperate need. While this is a high-risk sign, the Cubs have very little money committed long-term and could afford Tanaka even if he ends up being a complete bust long-term. This move is right for the Cubs because they need to do something to fans interested. Announcing that prospects like Baez and Bryant were progressing through the minor leagues was a great first step, signing a big name free agent with loads of potential would be another great step in the right direction.