By Marc Normandin

It's not often you can blame any one thing for holding up baseball's offseason free agent market, as it's usually a combination of teams, players, agents, and the general slow pace of winter. This year, however, there is one very clear target upon which to settle your side-eye gaze, and that's Japan's Rakuten Golden Eagles for their treatment of ace starter Masahiro Tanaka.

Now, now, there's no need to start tweeting mean things about them or anything like that. Rakuten just wants to get paid, and under the new posting system, what they couldhave seen in riches is now an unrealistic dream. Gone are the days where an organization would pay a Nippon Professional Baseball league club around $50 million for the rights to negotiate with Daisuke Matsuzaka. Whether a posted player is a mistake or a godsend from here on out, or at least until the agreement is inevitably renegotiated down the line, they will only cost up to $20 million for the right to negotiate, instead of the previous limit of infinite dollars. Rakuten, currently in possession of arguably Japan's greatest (eventual) export next to sushi, video games, kaiju -- okay, okay, Japan is pretty awesome, but so is Tanaka -- is upset about the fact they just missed making bank on a pitcher they know they will eventually lose to Major League Baseball one way or another.

Rakuten might not post Tanaka this year at all, instead keeping him one more year in order to balance the drop in posting payment with some on-field performance that benefits them. Then again, they might also post him, knowing that he'll end up in MLB eventually, and that $20 million beats Japanese players questioning why they are being held back from posting, potentially upsetting the system in place in NPB. No one quite knows what he outcome will be just yet, and that's why Rakuten is responsible for holding up the free agent market for starting pitchers: no one wants to make a move until they know if Tanaka is on the board.

With a $20 million maximum posting fee, in theory, all 30 MLB teams could submit a bid to negotiate with Tanaka. He would get to choose which clubs he wanted to speak to among those who tie for the top bid, and while not all 30 clubs could afford to pay him what will likely be the largest contract ever for a posted Japanese player, with all of the television revenue and general profits floating around in this successful era, it's certainly more than just a few teams who will be seeking his services.

He fits any situation. The Astros could use Tanaka despite the fact they're closer to the start of a lengthy rebuilding process than the finish line, because the right-hander is just 25 years old. The same goes for the Cubs, who are also stockpiling prospects, but are on the lookout for the right pitcher to throw money at -- remember, they bid heavily on Anibal Sanchez last year, and tried to keep Matt Garza before finally trading him this past summer. The Rangers, Yankees, Dodgers, or any other number of contending teams -- even the pitching-stacked Red Sox -- could use Tanaka right now, because, while young, he's also experienced, and possesses a track record filled with stellar performances.

Let's break him down just a little. Since 2011, Tanaka has started 76 games and thrown 611 1/3 innings. In that stretch, his ERA is 1.44, thanks to allowing barely any walks -- just 78 total or 1.1 per nine innings in a three-year stretch -- and keeping the ball in the park. The league ERA is lower in Japan, sure, but Tanaka's performance far outstrips that difference. In 2013, Japan's league ERA was 3.57, while Tanaka was at 1.27.

If you're used to seeing ERA+ and the like for the wow factor, we can give you an estimate that isn't adjusted for park. That would put him at a 281 ERA+ for 2013, and while he's unlikely to be that good in MLB -- that's like Pedro Martinez in 2000 good, the kind of thing baseball video game numbers aspire to -- it's a clear sign Tanaka is far, far better than the competition he's facing, and likely to find success stateside.

So, let's go from that to the bunch that Tanaka is holding up: it will make understanding why there's a hold up to begin with easier. There's the aforementioned Garza, and while he doesn't cost a compensatory draft pick in order to sign, he's also not all that exciting. Don't take that the wrong way: Garza is definitely a good pitcher, and someone should pay him a significant amount of money for that. If you're going to end up spending $80 million to $100 million on a starting pitcher on a long-term contract, though, and you see someone who could be the next Yu Darvish at least in terms of production and immediate investment payoff, and next to him is Garza and the 110 ERA+ he's posted over the last three years while dealing with injuries, you're going to wait and see what happens with Tanaka.

Now, imagine how difficult things are for the non-Garza starters out there, like Ubaldo Jimenez. The Indians submitted the qualifying offer to Jimenez, attaching draft pick compensation to him in the process. He's already sketchy enough as is thanks to a history of inconsistency and just one season removing him from looking completely lost and being productive, and now there is a pick added in. This brings on additional pressure to sign a long-term deal, which maybe isn't the greatest idea with an inconsistent arm who has thrown a huge chunk of his innings in the thin air of Colorado. If Garza's ERA+ over the last three years is uninspiring put next to the prospect of Tanaka, then Ubaldo's mark of 90 -- successful 2013 be damned -- stands no chance.

Ervin Santana is somewhat in the same boat. His 2013 was a lovely bit of pitching for the Royals, and it earned him the qualifying offer, but he's not even at Garza levels of cachet thanks to a horrid 2012, inconsistency in his career numbers based almost entirely on whether his slider is working for him or not, and medical records that don't sing the tune teams want to hear. He could get a hefty deal, but it won't happen until after Tanaka is figured out, whether that's via posting or by staying with Rakuten.

Tanaka might even be holding up the likes of Bronson Arroyo and A.J. Burnett, who are more waiting for the rest of the already-in-MLB bunch to get moving before making a decision about their own future. That's what happens when you're the top pitcher on the market, though. There is no Zack Greinke this winter, no Max Scherzer or Clayton Kershaw like there could be a year from now. All there is is Tanaka and the rules that apply to only him and his league-mates. Until his team gives an inch or entrenches themselves further in stubbornness, nothing else on the pitching market is going to budge.


Marc Normandin writes and edits for Over the Monster, a Boston Red Sox blog, as well as SB Nation's baseball hub. He's one of many behind the e-book "The Hall of Nearly Great," and has written forBaseballProspectus, ESPN, and others. You can follow him on Twitter at @Marc_Normandin.