Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Masahiro Tanaka, The Posting System, and Crying Over Spilled Milk

Might he look better in a lighter shade of blue?

Much as they were two off-seasons ago, the Toronto Blue Jays are once again being tossed about as a potential landing place for the next big thing out of Japan, should Masahiro Tanaka of the NPB's Rakuten Golden Eagles be posted as expected. In his typical fashion, Anthopoulos is playing his cards close to the vest, never more than hinting at the possibility of the Jays being in play for the Japanese right-hander. However, this hasn't stopped fans and media alike from speculating that they could be one of the clubs to make a serious play for Tanaka.

In a lot of ways, it just makes too much sense not to seem likely. Despite what a certain knuckle-dragging segment of the fan base will try to tell you about the magic of coaching, chemistry, and cut-off men, the 2013 Blue Jays had exactly three glaring weaknesses (when they were healthy, at least). They had obvious holes at catcher and second base, receiving sub-replacement level performances from both performances. Those should be relatively easy to improve at, because even replacement level at both positions would be about a three win upgrade over what they received in 2013. Their biggest problem, and unfortunately the hardest to address in a meaningful way, was the disastrous health and performance of their starting rotation. If the general consensus about Tanaka being among the top free agent starters this off-season is accurate, landing him could go a long way towards shoring it up. What's more, Tanaka is exactly the kind of acquisition that, in a perfect world, I believe Anthopoulos should be targeting right now.

For starters, all he costs is money and that should be very appealing to the Blue Jays at the moment. Of course it will be quite a lot of money, and given Rogers' tight fisted history it can't be taken for granted that the money will be there. But if the Jays are able to upgrade without having to give up anything from their prospect pipeline in a trade, or having to sacrifice the draft pick and associated bonus pool money that would be tied to other top free agents, that's something they should be all over for the benefit of the club both now and in the future.

As mentioned, the posting system as it currently exists would mean a significant outlay of cash to get Tanaka to Toronto. As it stands, interested teams enter a blind bid to a player's Japanese team for the exclusive right to negotiate a contract with the player. The player either works out a contract with the team that entered the highest bid, or they return to Japan. Despite the hefty price tags this system creates, this is a system very favourable to the Blue Jays who, to whatever degree you choose to believe, have difficulty attracting free agents to play for MLB's afterthought franchise up here in the Great White North. This could be especially true for pitchers who may not like their prospects of putting up great numbers playing in a hitters' park with the AL East's elite offenses in front of them and lightning fast turf behind them. So, any system that allows the Blue Jays to effectively buy out a player's right to choose where they play can only work in their favour, assuming they're willing to put up the cash to do so.

Unfortunately, the Blue Jays' opportunity to take advantage of this advantageous system may be about to expire. According to a report from Joel Sherman of the New York Post, changes to it could be coming as soon as November 1st. These changes will, for better or worse (and most likely worse), impact the Blue Jays' chances of landing the Japanese hurler.

It sounds as though any revision of the system will be in the interest of allowing the player more choice in where they sign. There are two proposals I have seen mentioned. One would see the player gaining the right to negotiate with the top three bidders which would likely be disastrous for the Blue Jays. Not only would the player have a choice in where they play, but the Jays would also have to compete dollar for dollar with other (potentially deep-pocketed) parties after the bidding process is complete, something that is not currently the case. The other proposal would see only one team negotiating directly with the player, but the player would get to choose that team from among the top few bidders. Obviously both of these options decrease the Blue Jays' chances of signing posted players. The only upside I can see is that the Jays could be involved in the process even without winning the bidding process outright, maybe giving them the opportunity to blow away other teams with a monster contract (some dubious upside, that). However, I also can't help but think that this possibility is more than outweighed by the probability that other destinations would be more appealing to a Japanese free agent, not to mention the improbability of the Blue Jays even offering such a contract.

So now that we've tempered expectations of the Jays being able to land Tanaka, we should probably consider how desirable landing him would even be. Over the last three seasons, Tanaka has put up some pretty eye-popping numbers. He rocks a 1.47 ERA over that span, to go along a 24.8 K% and 3.3 BB%. There's no two ways about it. Those are some nasty numbers that, even regressed to account for the stiffer competition in MLB, would look pretty spiffy on this side of the Pacific. There are one or two concerns to be found though. 

First of all, he's not Yu Darvish. By all accounts, he doesn't throw as hard or have the same expansive repertoire of video game-like breaking pitches. His 24.8 K% since 2011 is pretty healthy, but regressed for Major League competition it shouldn't give fans hope of landing a strikeout machine of Darvish's caliber. Even more concerning is, as healthy as it still may be, his strikeout rate has been declining from 27.8% in 2011, to 24.3% in 2012, to 22.2% in 2013. While his walk rate has remained stable in the vicinity of 3%, it would be a lot easier to dismiss the declining strikeout rate if not for the fact that Tanaka's arm is much older than his 24 years would suggest. 

Since beginning his professional career at 18 he's logged 1315 innings, which is an absurd workload for such a young pitcher. It makes it hard to know what to make of the trend in Tanaka's strikeout numbers. It obviously hasn't hindered his success in Japan, but is this just a bit of a dip we should expect to reverse (in 2010 his K% was just 18.5%, after all), or is his arm aging ahead of the more typical curve as a result of his heavy workload? If it represents a new normal for Tanaka, and you regress it even further to account for facing the best players in the world day in and day out, things start to look less promising. 

There's a ton of risk with acquiring any pitcher though, so if they can land Tanaka without hamstringing themselves when it comes to making other upgrades or the club's future beyond 2015 I'm all for it. Still, if you're looking for Tanaka to come over to MLB and and start destroying worlds like Darvish has done, well, consider your parade rained on because it's highly unlikely.

Really, all this is just a roundabout way of saying, "Why didn't they go all in for Darvish?!" Obviously the changes to the posting system couldn't necessarily have been foreseen, but they make the Jays' lukewarm pursuit of Darvish seem like even more of a missed opportunity than it already does. They whiffed on (get it?) the superior pitcher at a time when the posting system was at its most advantageous to a franchise that struggles to entice top free agents to take its money. Hindsight is 20/20 and all that, but still... Darvish, man...

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