This offseason, the market for many of the big-name free agent starting pitchers has been in a constant holding pattern. First, teams were waiting to see if Masahiro Tanaka would even be posted by his team in Japan. Now that he has been posted, and since Tanaka is now the top free agent pitcher available, teams are waiting to see where he chooses to sign so the market can begin to clear up. Guys like Ervin Santana, Matt Garza, and Ubaldo Jimenez should have a better idea of what they’ll be able to sign for once Tanaka sets that bar, but it’s not likely that anything starts to shake out for another couple of weeks. Once Tanaka signs, the teams who still need a starter will turn their attention to that next tier of pitchers, which could also impact the trade market for other frontline starters. It all is likely hinging on Tanaka as the first domino.
Most teams will surely inquire on Tanaka, since they don’t even have to pay the $20 million posting fee if he doesn’t sign with them. The Royals are just one of the teams who have been rumored to be interested in the Japanese righty, along with at least 14 other teams:
That’s half of the entire league, and those are just the ones I found on a quick search without digging very deep. I wouldn’t be surprised if there are upwards of 20 or 25 teams who place calls into Tanaka’s agent, even if it’s just a cursory call to learn how far out of their budget he’s going to be. Unfortunately, that’s the scenario in which I assume the Royals will be involved. I think Tanaka would be an excellent fit on this roster, and being just 25 years old, he could lock into that 2nd spot in the rotation for the next several years. However, I also understand that with that many teams interested, Tanaka’s price tag could end up being around $140 million, including the posting fee. For a team with payroll limitations like the Royals, committing that kind of money probably wouldn’t be prudent.
That being said, Tanaka signing elsewhere could still have a significant impact on the Royals. The team still has a need for a 2nd starter, in my opinion, so Tanaka coming off the market will impact that search. Also, whatever team signs Tanaka is almost certainly adding wins to their roster.
Considering those factors, where should Royals’ fans hope that Tanaka signs?
Because of the wins Tanaka will likely bring, signing with any AL Central team is going to be bad. In that same vein, any AL Wild Card contender adding wins in the form of Tanaka could potentially be taking wins away from the Royals. Those two criteria eliminate the Tigers, Indians, Rangers, Athletics, Angels, Mariners, and Blue Jays. There have been reports that the Cubs would be more likely to hold on to Jeff Samardzija if they sign Tanaka, in an effort to try and contend sooner than they originally planned, so any trade plans for the Royals on that front would likely stall. That leaves just six teams on the list: Yankees, Red Sox, Diamondbacks, Astros, Dodgers, and Phillies.
The Diamondbacks have been linked strongly to other starters on the market, so if they miss out on Tanaka, I would still expect them to pursue another pitcher. The same could be said of the Yankees, and possibly the Phillies, so overall it won’t make a huge difference either way for the Royals, other than taking another pitching option off the table. The Astros are still a couple of years away from competing, so the only impact of Tanaka signing there would be forcing the bidding up on the other starters available.
Now we’re down to the two teams I think could potentially help the Royals by signing Tanaka. The Red Sox and Dodgers both have quite a bit of starting pitching depth. Los Angeles already has Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke, Hyun-jin Ryu, Dan Haren, Josh Beckett, and Chad Billingsley (once he recovers from Tommy John surgery) competing for the rotation. While I’m not a huge fan of Beckett – his velocity has dropped about 1.5 MPH since 2011 and he’s had injury problems – he could still be a trade target, if the Dodgers are willing to eat some of his $15.8 million salary for next season. Beckett wouldn’t be my first choice, but if Tanaka goes to LA, the Dodgers could be more motivated to move the 33 year old right-hander, so it shouldn’t take much to acquire him. Boston has stated they do not plan on trading any starters, but if they were to sign Tanaka, they would have basically no room for Jake Peavy or Ryan Dempster, who will combine to make about $27 million next season. The Royals could pursue one of them – Peavy would be the best option – to improve their rotation.
Despite rumors of the Royals being in on the Tanaka sweepstakes, I don’t expect to see him sign in Kansas City. However, Dayton Moore will still need to keep his eye on where Tanaka lands, so he can judge the pitching market at that point. It’s unlikely that the Royals sign one of the other premier starters available, especially since so many other teams are in need of starting pitching, so the Royals may need to turn to the trade market, which could be significantly impacted after Tanaka is no longer available.