As training camp nears, 1 item remains on D-backs’ still-to-do list

Major league teams have until Jan. 24 to negotiate with Japanese free-agent Masahiro Tanaka.

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PHOENIX — With spring training less than a month away, the Diamondbacks are a starting pitcher short of addressing their stated off-season wish list. At the same time, they just be might done making changes.

When the off-season began, the D-backs wanted a power bat and traded for slugger Mark Trumbo. They wanted to maintain a veteran bench and re-signed free agents Eric Chavez and Henry Blanco. And after first indicating they wanted to stay in-house for their 2014 closer, they acquired Addison Reed.

So far, so good.

Like last season, when the Justin Upton/Martin Prado trade did not go down until the late January, the D-backs are still working. But there appears to be only one real target remaining, free agent right-hander Masahiro Tanaka, in their quest to add to the top end of the starting rotation. They have not bid on Tanaka yet but will, a source with knowledge said.

It is not as if the D-backs have not been trying to address the rotation. They looked into trades involving top-liners such as David Price, Chris Sale and Jeff Samardzija, but  all were priced out of reach, so they spent primary trade chips Matt Davidson, Adam Eaton and Tyler Skaggs in the deals to get Trumbo and Reed. The D-backs still have an extra shortstop and depth in the bullpen, and it is possible another trade is out there, but the free-agent market seems the more likely avenue at this point.

That means Tanaka, who was 24-0 with a 1.27 ERA for Rakuten last season, with an 0.93 WHIP in 212 innings. The free-agent market traditionally moves at a more measured pace until the top-end talent signs, and that especially is the case among pitchers this season because of the in-out-in dance done by Tanaka, the consensus top starter available. 

The market did not open until the Rakuten Golden Eagles agreed to post Tanaka two weeks ago and accept the reduced $20 million posting fee from the U.S. team that signs him. Every team that puts up the fee has until Jan. 24 to negotiate with Tanaka, who is likely to receive a contact of at least $100 million, insiders believe. Texas paid a $51.7 million posting fee to acquire the rights to Yu Darvish three years ago, then signed him a  six-year, $56 million contract.  

The D-backs, whose pitchers and catchers report on Feb. 6 due to their season-opening series in Australia, are far from the only team in the hunt. Recent reports indicate that Seattle could be preparing a big offer, even after spending $240 million on second baseman Robinson Cano. The New York Yankees also were said to have made Tanaka a priority sign despite spending $283 million on Carlos Beltran, Jacoby Ellsbury and Brian McCann.

The D-backs budgeted for the process and have money to spend, and president/CEO Derrick Hall has made it clear that they will spend it to "keep up with the Joneses," as he said on his radio show during  the winter meetings. The D-backs have about $82 million already committed to their returning nucleus, but there is more wiggle room. Hall has said the D-backs could have the highest payroll in franchise history this season. They spent about $103 million in 2002, the only season when the payroll exceeded nine figures.

The D-backs have a negotiating chip that none of Tanaka’s other suitors have in former Rakuten teammate Rick Short, who is a scout in the organization. Short played the final four years of his professional career in Japan, the last three with Rakuten. He had 63 doubles, 11 homers and 119 RBI playing behind Tanaka from 2007-09, when Tanaka was breaking in. It remains to be seen how that will factor into Tanaka’s decision.

If Tanaka goes elsewhere, the D-backs’ fallback position appears to be to stand pat, to bring back the same members of the rotation — Patrick Corbin, Wade Miley, Trevor Cahill, Brandon McCarthy, Randall Delgado — and possibly add to it from within with top prospect right-hander Archie Bradley.

The other top-of-the-market free agents starters — Matt Garza, Ervin Santana and Bronson Arroyo are the most notable — are overpriced at this point of the process, the D-backs believe, and not worth the money they are asking. That may change as the dominos begin to fall after Tanaka signs.

Garza made $10.25 million in 2013 and was said to be seeking an extension of between $12 million and $14 million a year from the Cubs before they traded him to Texas. Santana has spent his nine-year career in the American League, winning 11 games at least five times. He made $13 million last year and was said to be seeking a five-year, $100 million contract, although that may be too high considering the early free-agent market moves. Arroyo, a 14-year veteran, has won 105 games the last eight years pitching in Cincinnati’s hitter-friendly Great American Ball Park, so Chase Field might not require much adjustment. He is 4-1 with a 3.20 ERA in six starts at Chase.

The D-backs lost almost four months because of injuries to McCarthy and Cahill and could expect to more work from them this season, which would help stabilize the rotation. Bradley will be given a chance to make the rotation this spring regardless of any other moves.

The everyday lineup appears close to being set with the exception of shortstop, where they will decide between Didi Gregorius and Chris Owings. Trumbo, A.J. Pollock and Gerardo Parra are the outfielders, with Martin Prado at third, Aaron Hill at second, Paul Goldschmidt at first and Miguel Montero behind the plate.

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