Pitcher Tanaka’s Japanese team says he can seek career in MLB

After nearly two months of transoceanic baseball diplomacy, Masahiro Tanaka is on his way to Major League Baseball.

Tanaka, the Japanese pitching sensation, has been granted his wish to pitch in the major leagues. His team, the Rakuten Golden Eagles, announced at a Dec. 25 news conference in Japan that Tanaka will be available to MLB clubs this winter through the posting process.

According to NHK, Japan’s public broadcaster, Rakuten team president Yozo Tachibana acknowledged his reservations about the new posting system — which caps the posting fee at $20 million — but said the team did not want to hold back a star player from a challenge he wishes to embrace. Tanaka, 25, is coming off a year in which he went 24-0 with a 1.27 ERA in the Japanese Pacific League.

So with one drama resolved, another begins: Which MLB team will meet Tanaka’s price tag, which could be around $100 million?

Tanaka’s case closely resembles traditional free agency — albeit with an extraordinarily steep ante. Tanaka can sign with any team that pays Rakuten the posting fee, almost certain to be the maximum $20 million. That’s a dramatic departure from the previous system for Yu Darvish and others, under which there was no limit on the compensation received by Japanese clubs. (The highest-bidding MLB club won exclusive negotiating rights with the player.)

The New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers — large-market franchises known to be looking for a starting pitcher — are viewed as frontrunners for Tanaka. The Arizona Diamondbacks and Chicago Cubs have interest, too.

The Texas Rangers, the beneficiaries of Darvish’s wildly successful entrance to MLB, were thought to be a primary suitor for Tanaka before investing $130 million in free-agent outfielder Shin-Soo Choo; the Choo signing doesn’t necessarily rule out the Rangers as a possibility for Tanaka, but they obviously have less money to spend.

The news of Tanaka’s posting will be welcomed warmly by the MLB Players Association. The union and a number of player agents had grown concerned about the effect of Rakuten’s indecision on the marketplace for top free-agent pitchers Ervin Santana, Ubaldo Jimenez and Matt Garza. All remained unsigned as of Christmas, presumably because teams had been waiting to see if the pitching market would include Tanaka.

Now they know. At a time of year when teams typically wrap up their offseason shopping, the 2013-2014 pitching market is completely open for the very first time.