John McGrath: 24-0 is a really good reason for Mariners to pursue Tanaka

john.mcgrath@thenewstribune.comDecember 27, 2013 

The Rakuten Golden Eagles made pitcher Masahiro Tanaka available for major league teams to bid on. The right-hander was 24-0 with a 1.27 ERA this past season.

KYODO NEWS (JAPAN) FILE

Masahiro Tanaka is the best unemployed pitcher in the world. If the name doesn’t ring familiar, this might:

24-0.

That was Tanaka’s win-loss record with the Rakuten Golden Eagles, champions of the 2013 Japan Series.

Win-loss records aren’t regarded as the ultimate evaluation of a pitcher’s performance anymore — hits and walks allowed per innings thrown is much more revealing statistic — but, still ...

24-0.

It looks like the first-quarter football score between Alabama and whatever nonconference cupcake the Crimson Tide has lined up for obliteration, or the final record of one of those UCLA basketball-dynasty teams coached by John Wooden.

But a 24-0 record for a starting pitcher? Are you kidding?

Tanaka finished the 2012 season with four consecutive victories, which means the right-hander will own a 28-game winning streak when he begins the U.S. phase of his professional career next spring.

Tanaka’s free-agent status became official Thursday morning, when the Golden Eagles decided to accept a $20 million fee in exchange for a major league team’s right to negotiate a contract with the star.

Are the Seattle Mariners interested? The Mariners aren’t thought to be potential participants in the Tanaka Sweepstakes, but the pivotal word here is “thought.” Unless you’re a confidante of general manager Jack Zduriencik — a club almost as exclusive as Retired Popes and Happily Married National Enquirer Cover Photo Subjects — you just don’t know.

And remember: The Mariners weren’t thought to be serious about obtaining second baseman Robinson Cano, the top position player on the free-agent market, and they ended assembling $240 million worth of seriousness.

Affordability isn’t an issue with the Mariners. Despite the salaries they’ll owe Cano ($24 million) and No. 1 starter Felix Hernandez ($22 million) in 2014, there’s plenty of payroll room to acquire a big-time starting pitcher and, for that matter, an outfielder who can slot into the middle of the batting order.

More problematic is the contract length Tanaka and his agents likely will demand. He’s only 25, but 25-year-old pitchers from Japan, where pitch-count limits are not imposed with vigilance, should be approached with caution.

During the 2006 Japan high school baseball tournament, Tanaka threw 742 pitches over six appearances — 124 pitches a game. (Ouch.) He was 17 when he did it. (Once more, with feeling: Ouch!)

Tanaka missed parts of the 2008 and 2009 seasons with right-shoulder issues. Nothing serious enough to need surgery, but it’s safe to say there are some miles – er, kilometers – on his arm.

Still, there’s a reason some big league organization soon will be happy to pay $20 million for the chance to work out a deal with Tanaka, whose Japan League stats compare favorably with those of Rangers ace (and 2013 Cy Young Award finalist) Yu Darvish.

The Rangers, by the way, paid a posting fee of $50 million to negotiate with Darvish. A recent agreement between Major League Baseball and Nippon Professional Baseball capped the posting fee for Japanese free agents at $20 million, enabling small-market teams to join the fun.

At least that was the idea. As soon as the Golden Eagles allowed Tanaka to pursue free agency in America on Thursday, the New York Yankees were identified as front-runners in the race to sign him.

After all, the Yankees have the budget, the tradition and the expertise to acquire anybody they want. And once Cano declined their generous offer to remain with them for a quite more generous relocation proposition from Seattle, the Yankees became especially motivated.

But what does Tanaka want? (Aside, I mean, from enough money to send the great grandchildren of his children’s children to expensive schools for graduate degrees.)

If the Mariners emerge as bidders, they can tout Seattle’s Pacific Rim location. Geography is almost always cited as a reason free agents are reluctant to hook up with the Mariners; in this case, geography happens to work on their behalf.

And then there’s the Mariners’ history of Japanese ownership. Again, we tend to dwell on that as a negative — the late Hiroshi Yamauchi was seen as detached, perhaps contributing to front-office dysfunction — and, again, the Japanese business connection works on their behalf with Tanaka.

Ichiro Suzuki, Kazuhiro Sasaki, Shigetoshi Hasegawa and Hisashi Iwakuma were invited to a collective 14 All-Star games as Mariners. (Ichiro appeared in 10 of those games, and he’s under contract to play for the Yankees in 2014 but, hey, work with me here.)

Another nugget of interest: Between 2005 and 2011, Iwakuma and Tanaka belonged to the same Rakuten Golden Eagles pitching rotation, so it’s possible they consider themselves the closest of friends. Then again, it’s also possible they shared clubhouse space as awkwardly as Ken Griffey Jr. and Alex Rodriguez.

I’m suspecting the two pitchers got along just fine. I’m suspecting any interest the Mariners show in Tanaka will be reciprocated.

There is no guarantee Tanaka will duplicate his Japan League stats in the States. There is no guarantee he’ll come within three earned runs per game of his crazy 1.27 ERA.

But it’s no secret the Mariners are looking for a veteran starter capable of doing more than taking the ball every fifth day with the hope he won’t require a reliever to warm up in the third inning. The pool of free-agent pitchers answering that description is shallow, and any trade for a top-of-the-line pitcher will cost several top-of-the-line prospects.

Signing Masahiro Tanaka, on the other hand, won’t cost the Mariners anything except money they can afford to spend.

Did I mention his record last season was 24-0?

As Ron Fairly would say, that’s good. That’s really good.

john.mcgrath@thenewstribune.com

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