Robinson Cano is the best free-agent position player on the market. His representatives — including entertainment mogul Jay-Z — are deep enough into their offseason planning that they had a dinner meeting with the New York Mets on Monday.
Masahiro Tanaka is Cano’s counterpart among pitchers, the most sought-after arm on the open market … except that his market isn’t open.
Welcome to the Hot Stove version of a rain delay, with enough elements of economics, politics and international relations to fill up the syllabus of a 300-level college seminar. Baseball’s offseason business hasn’t been suspended entirely — see the recent signings of Tim Hudson and Carlos Ruiz — but the biggest names are waiting for the resolution of some transoceanic hardball diplomacy.
Tanaka, 25, is coming off a career year with the Rakuten Golden Eagles of the Japanese Pacific League, in which he went 24-0 with a 1.27 ERA. Rakuten is likely to make the right-hander available to Major League Baseball franchises through the posting process, by which the highest-bidding club obtains exclusive negotiating rights. Big-spending teams such as the New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers are, to varying degrees, holding off on pitching acquisitions while waiting to find out if they will be that team.
The problem: The process hasn’t even started because the last posting agreement between MLB and Nippon Professional Baseball expired. Despite renewed talks in recent days, the leagues haven’t been able to agree on a new deal. So Tanaka is in limbo — along with the Yankees, Dodgers and other potential suitors.
Tens of millions of dollars are at stake. During the 2011-12 offseason, the Texas Rangers invested $111.7 million in Yu Darvish — a $51.7 million posting fee and a $60 million contract. Tanaka could require a similar cash outlay because he’s near to Darvish in ability, and baseball-industry revenues have increased in the past two years.
“I believe Tanaka is a better pitcher than (Daisuke) Matsuzaka and closer to Darvish,” said Ira Stevens of ScoutDragon.com, the Japanese baseball scouting service. “I think Darvish is a better pitcher, but Tanaka over the past three years has really closed the gap.”
The delay has fueled a number of debates in the American and Japanese baseball industries. Japanese players aren’t happy with the lack of choice in the current posting system. A divide between large- and small-market MLB teams reportedly developed at last week’s owners meetings because posting bids are not subject to luxury-tax calculations. (Of course, this helps the Yankees and Dodgers.)
But it seems unlikely those concerns will be addressed in the current negotiations. Rather, sources say, MLB and NPB officials are focused primarily on resolving the question of how much money NPB clubs will receive from MLB clubs.
Under the old agreement, Japanese teams simply received the highest bid. Jason Coskrey of The Japan Times reported that one recent MLB proposal stipulated NPB clubs would receive an average of the top two bids. But by the time NPB and the Japan Professional Baseball Players Association indicated they would accept that figure, MLB said the terms no longer were acceptable because the offer had expired.
“We made a proposal to the Japanese,” MLB chief operating officer Rob Manfred said after the owners meetings concluded last Thursday. “When we made that proposal, we told them it was important that they give us a timely response. Unfortunately, they have not been able to do that. … It sat out there for a long time. They couldn’t give us an answer.”
With talks resuming this week, the MLB commissioner’s office could choose to exercise its considerable leverage by negotiating the price point downward. If the figure was 50 percent in the last proposal, MLB can declare the negotiation a success if the Japanese club’s take ultimately drops to 40 or 30 percent.
The union for Japanese players would like Tanaka — and others — to have the ability to choose among the top two or three bidders. Over time, though, the JPBPA has been reluctant to strike or take legal action in order to obtain that right.
“Striking is too traumatic — they did it once — and court takes too long,” said Robert Whiting, an author and expert on Japanese baseball. MLB and NPB know this and can exploit the JPBPA’s reluctance to use those forms of leverage.
Similarly, MLB has a better bargaining position than NPB. Clubs such as Rakuten know their superstar players are likely to sign with MLB clubs once they become international free agents. (For Tanaka, that would happen after two more seasons.) The posting system is a very lucrative way for NPB teams to be compensated for losing their superstars; the Japanese teams don’t want to lose that windfall.
MLB can argue — correctly if not cheekily — that if its teams can’t spend their money on posted Japanese players, they’ll find another use for their millions. The latest fashionable marketplace has been that of Cuban defectors, many of whom aren’t subject to the recently instituted international spending caps.
“I just don’t know how much the NPB clubs can complain when they clearly cannot afford to walk away from the table,” said one MLB team official.
For now, the man who could be the best pitcher on the quasi-open market must wait. If there’s any solace for Tanaka, it is this: A similar period of indecision came before Darvish’s posting on Dec. 8, 2011. Everything seems to have worked out fine for him.