I'll say this much for Masahiro Tanaka: his timing is good. The Japenese star just put together the best statistical season for a pitcher in NPB history, and will be coming to the States just as Major League Baseball is receiving a massive influx of revenue from new media deals.
Tanaka has been on an incredible run. After starring for Japan in the World Baseball Classic in the spring, he went 22-0 with a 1.23 ERA for the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles. At season's end, he came on as closer to protect a one-run lead in his team's pennant-clinching victory.
He's a star on the level of Yu Darvish, Daisuke Matsuzaka and Hideo Nomo. He's only 24 years old. He has filed for international free agency. And there are plenty of major-league teams ready to spend big on pitching.
The Twins are one of them.
There are several reasons to believe the Twins will be active players for Tanaka this winter. Jim Pohlad has repeatedly insisted that he is more than open to aggressive financial measures in order to improve the club, while Terry Ryan has been typically wary of the free agent route.
Ryan's main concern -- one that has been echoed by Pohlad -- is that there's great peril in handing high-dollar multi-year contracts to aging pitchers, who are notoriously susceptible to injury and decline.
But of course, Tanaka is just entering his physical prime. He is only 15 months older than Alex Meyer, the organization's top pitching prospect. And his success in the Nippon Pro Baseball league has been otherworldly. In seven seasons, he is 95-35 with a 2.32 ERA, 52 complete games and 18 shutouts. He is renowned for his outstanding command, and his featured split-finger fastball is considered by scouts to be a plus major-league pitch.
Of course, dominant numbers in Japan don't always portend effectiveness in the majors. The Twins have seen that on some level with Tsuyoshi Nishioka, but the more relevant cases would be players like Matsuzaka, Hideki Irabu and Kei Igawa. There's plenty of risk involved, especially when you consider that Tanaka could well command an investment that rivals (or even exceeds) the $112 million shelled out by Texas for Darvish two years ago.
The Rangers' contract with Darvish is for six years and $60 million -- hardly outrageous by MLB standards -- but Texas also needed to win bidding rights with a $52 million posting fee for the hurler's Japanese team, the Nippon Ham Fighters.
Undoubtedly, the Golden Eagles are licking their chops anticipating the bids that might come in for Tanaka given his age and status. Several large-market major-league teams appear poised to spend heavily on starting pitching this offseason, most notably the New York Yankees.
As the posting system for Japanese players involves blind bids, Ryan and the Twins would need to send out a very, very significant offer in order to have a legitimate chance of landing the pinnacle of the international market.
Could they be gun-shy about playing this game? That would be understandable, since they were burned on the Nishioka deal. Then again, they must feel some sense of remorse for missing out on Hisashi Iwakuma, for whom they finished runner up
in the post bidding back in 2010. The Twins clearly had interest in Iwakuma but didn't do what it took to bring him in, and they've since watched him go 23-11 with a 2.84 ERA in two seasons with Seattle.
The cost to claim Tanaka will be in another realm entirely from Nishioka (winning bid: $5 million) or Iwakuma ($19 million). I suspect he may break the current record held by Darvish at $51.7 million. That's an awful lot of money to pay simply to negotiate with a player, at which point the Twins would have to make another massive financial commitment.
Perhaps too spicy a pepper to swallow. There's not much in the history of the franchise or the commanding GM to suggest that such a splashy play would be on the table. But with the Twins admitting they have surplus money to spend, and with Tanaka fitting so well into their emerging timeline, I wouldn't be surprised if the club made a bid they feel is quite aggressive in order to take a shot at the intriguing righty.
Whether or not that's aggressive enough isn't in their hands. It could very well turn out that the Twins' ability to gamble on Tanaka is dictated more by the level of interest from other (far richer) teams than their own.