By Jack Gallagher
TOKYO -- Masahiro Tanaka received the present he has been wishing for -- a chance to pitch in the U.S. major leagues -- and it arrived gift-wrapped on Christmas Day. The 25-year-old phenom, who is coming off a sensational season that saw him go 24-0 with a 1.37 ERA, could be posted as soon as Thursday night, according to some reports. Under a recently approved agreement, Tanaka essentially will become a free agent, free to negotiate with any and all interested MLB teams.
There certainly will be no shortage of suitors for Tanaka, with the likes of the Yankees, Dodgers, Cubs and Angels among those rumored to be interested. The irony is that the new posting agreement was supposed to give small-market teams a shot at big prizes like Tanaka, but that probability seems almost as remote now as it was under the old system. Will small-market teams like the Brewers, Rays or Athletics be willing to part with $20 million, plus a contract that may total $75 million or more, for a player who has never thrown a pitch in the majors? Not likely.
Tanaka met with Rakuten Golden Eagles president Yozo Tachibana in Sendai, on Wednesday morning, after the team said last week that it was inclined to retain his services for at least one more season. "We thought highly of Tanaka, who not only helped us win the Japan Series title this year but has also contributed to us in the last seven years," Tachibana said at a news conference after the meeting. "We took that into consideration, and our owner [Hiroshi Mikitani] approved Tanaka's transfer to the major leagues and we came to the decision to post him."
Tachibana says that the Pacific League MVP clearly was glad that the matter finally had been resolved. "He looked relieved," Tachibana said of Tanaka's reaction to the club's decision. "To be honest with you, he's a very important player to us and that's not going to change. We told him today that we hoped him to be a pitcher that represents Japan."
"I'm grateful as can be for the team's approval," Kyodo News quoted Tanaka as saying on Wednesday. "My preferences for a team are something to be considered from this point on. I want to choose from as many teams as possible." Added Tanaka, "The support of this team and our fans brought me to this point. That was my foundation, no doubt about it. What has happened here is etched on my heart."
Under the rules of the new posting system, which was formally announced by Nippon Professional Baseball and Major League Baseball last week, the maximum amount the Eagles could receive by posting Tanaka at this time is $20 million. After seeing posting fees north of $50 million landed by both the Seibu Lions ($51.1 million for Daisuke Matsuzaka in 2006) and the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters ($51.7 for Yu Darvish in 2011), Rakuten appeared to be in line for a huge payday. But it won't turn out that way, and the reasons behind it involve timing, leverage and culture.
It was no doubt bad luck for the Eagles that Tanaka would put up such impressive numbers (0.94 WHIP, with a 5.7 K/BB ratio) just as the previous posting agreement was expiring, but they certainly could not have expected that they would incur such a loss in expected revenue from the transfer of Tanaka. To some, it looked like the most lopsided transaction since Manhattan was purchased for the equivalent of $24, back in 1626. A great many folks in Japan are wondering, "Why would NPB agree to an arrangement that is so disadvantageous to it?"
First and foremost, NPB was dealing from a position of weakness with MLB. Under the initial proposal that MLB made, the winning bid would be somewhere between the first- and second-place bidders, and the Japanese player would be able to select which team he wanted to play for. The NPB owners were amenable to this arrangement, but the NPB Players Association dragged its feet, trying to negotiate a change in its own league's free agency rules as part of the same deal. (NPB players currently can become free agents within Japan after eight seasons, or internationally after nine seasons.)
Robert Whiting, best-selling author of the classic You Gotta Have Wa, says that this infuriated Rob Manfred, MLB's chief operating officer, resulting in the first proposal being withdrawn on Nov. 15. "MLB was already upset at NPBPA for its dilatory tactics on demanding a bigger cut of the total revenue for the 2013 World Baseball Classic," says Whiting. "They got tired of their attitude, because after all, free agency is something that NPBPA should negotiate directly with its owners.
"Manfred said, 'We really don't need a posting system. If we have to wait for nine years to get a Japanese player via free agency, then so be it, we will.'" Whiting says that this is when the Japanese side began to crack. "NPB and NPBPA got all shaken up after this happened," he noted. "They went to New York for more meetings and got MLB to come up with another proposal." The $20 million cap emerged from those meetings, as well as the player's ability to negotiatiate with any team that had bid the maximum amount.
Atsushi Ihara, the general secretary of NPB, was quoted by Kyodo as saying after the 12 NPB teams met on Nov. 18, they would "negotiate to try and keep what we have." But it didn't turn out that way. In fact, far from it. When director of NPB director of baseball operations Nobuhisa Ito returned from negotiations in New York, in early December, the NPB owners were informed that they might be left with nothing if they did not act quickly.
Whether it was a bluff or not, the maneuver worked. The NPB owners voted 11-1 to accept the deal, with Rakuten the lone dissenter. Under terms of the new three-year deal, a player must be posted between Nov. 1 and Feb. 1, and the team that gets the right to negotiate with him has 30 days to conclude a deal. If no contract is reached, the team does not have to pay a release fee to the player's NPB club. Not only that, but the team with the winning bid can pay in installments; previously, the winning bid had to be forked over all at once.
Rakuten owner Mikitani is one of the richest men in the world. The 50-year-old Kobe native is a graduate of the Harvard Business School, and he also owns Vissel Kobe, a team in Japan's pro soccer league. Mikitani is part of a new era of Japanese entrepreneurs, more open-minded and realistic about dealing with the world outside Japan, according to Whiting. "Mikitani is younger than the other owners and has a more global focus. He has made English the language of communication in his company -- an online shopping mall -- saying that it's not just an advantage for his company in world markets, it's a requirement in this era."
Mikitani reportedly is not happy with the status quo as it relates to his country's top players moving to the U.S. majors. "He sees Japan continually losing its best stars to MLB -- Nomo, Ichiro, Hideki Matsui, Matsuzaka, Kuroda, Uehara, Darvish," says Whiting. "He complains that Japan is becoming a minor league to MLB, where once it was completely focused on parity with them." Mikitani granted Tanaka's request in the end, but it is likely that he did so out of respect for what the star had brought to the franchise, which only began play in 2005, and not to acquiesce to the wishes of the other NPB clubs.
The GM of one NPB team, who requested anonymity, said the heavy hand of the Yomiuri Giants was reflected in the stance other clubs took on the posting system vote. The influence of Japan's oldest and most successful franchise still carries a lot of weight within NPB.
"Powerful clubs like the Giants and Softbank Hawks have no intention of ever posting players," he said. "So the Giants do not want to see other clubs making big money off a system they don't like. That's the bottom line."
The GM also said a lack of business acumen factored into the outcome.
"From a business point of view, the decision by the NPB clubs is difficult to understand," he stated. "I would not have agreed with it."
The posting system was originally created in December 1998, after Alfonso Soriano, who began his pro career in Japan with the Hiroshima Carp, tried to use the same "voluntary retirement" loophole to go to the majors earlier that season that Hideo Nomo did in 1995. Soriano was unsuccessful, but was eventually released by the Carp and signed by the Yankees after MLB declared him a free agent.
Whiting believes that the new posting system could signal a critical juncture for relations between the baseball titans. "This is an interesting turning point for NPB," he commented. "NPB needs leadership like Mikitani's."
Jack Gallagher is the executive sports editor of The Japan Times in Tokyo. He has been a sports journalist in Japan for 18 years and has been honored for his writing both domestically and internationally. He was previously an executive in public relations in the NBA and NFL Europe.