After weeks of speculation and more than a few false starts in the media, Japanese ace Masahiro Tanaka has been posted by the Rakuten Golden Eagles, the Nippon Professional Baseball team that holds his contract rights and the defending champions of the Japan Series. And that means it's time for perhaps a tamer and more abbreviated version of the silly season that baseball saw when ace Yu Darvish was posted by the Nippon Ham Fighters two years ago.
When Darvish was posted under the old posting agreement, the Texas Rangers ended up paying a reported $51.7 million to the Fighters purely as a posting fee before even beginning to write checks to the then-25-year-old, who himself commanded a six-year, $56 million contract before incentives. That sort of titanic investment was too much for some MLB teams. When the time came this offseason to renew the posting agreement, smaller-market clubs held up the process, demanding concessions to level the playing field somewhat and bring down the barrier to entry. In the end, they got precisely what they wanted -- a flat $20 million cap on posting fees -- and probably lost what little shot they had of signing Masahiro Tanaka.
As Mark Feinsand of the New York Daily News (among others) confirmed, through an MLB spokesman, teams who wish to involve themselves in the bidding process for Tanaka must merely inform the league that they are willing to pay the $20 million fee that the Eagles ask for Tanaka -- they don't need to submit a formal bid, nor do they need to put the money into escrow. What this functionally means, then, is that Tanaka is more or less a free agent with a price floor of $20 million; and with talent like his, that means every team in baseball should be in on him.
Not all of them will be, of course. The Baltimore Orioles have indicated, by way of executive vice president Dan Duquette, that they view the $20 million posting fee as "too expensive." Baltimore is a team that is probably one or two top-of-the-rotation pitchers away from legitimate contention -- and Masahiro Tanaka looks to be precisely that. The Orioles have no qualms about signing Japanese league professional pitchers; Taiwanese lefty Wei-Yin Chen was one of Duquette's first big moves when he took over the team, and he had spent his previous professional seasons playing for NPB's Chunichi Dragons. The real problem becomes apparent when you realize that Chen's contract -- a three-year, $11.4 million deal -- represents the largest free-agent deal handed out under Duquette's regime, now that the Orioles have torpedoed Grant Balfour's two-year, $15 million deal by claiming he failed his physical. While Baltimore's ownership appears willing to spend money to extend current players like Adam Jones and J.J. Hardy, Peter Angelos's strange, indecisive lack of spending in the free-agent market continues to hinder the franchise.
This might not particularly matter, however -- since the new posting system is basically free agency with a buy-in, there's no reason to think that small-market teams have a better shot of being able to land Tanaka than they would if he had hit the market with the rest of this year's free agents. The only big-market, established-spender club that might be less of a contender for Tanaka's services under the new system than they would have been under the old are the New York Yankees, and that's only if they're still pretending they're going to field a team under the $189 million luxury tax payroll threshold for 2014. The Los Angeles Dodgers and Chicago Cubs are both rumored to be going hard after Tanaka -- and why wouldn't they, considering the resources both teams can bring to bear?
The only way a team like the Blue Jays, the Indians, the Mariners or the Pirates could have signed a guy like Tanaka in the past would be if they outbid the bigger-spending teams in the blind bid part of the process, and didn't have to worry about the Dodgers' endless swarm of TV money descending like a cloud of locusts over the proceedings. As it is, the only mid-to-small market team that has been heavily connected to Tanaka has been the Diamondbacks, and it's difficult to envision a scenario in which Arizona manages to outbid a truly motivated Dodgers franchise, no matter how much Kevin Towers loves Tanaka's arm.
The clear "get" for the small-market teams under the new system, of course, isn't the player itself -- what they want is more of the total outlay of funds (the posting fee plus the player contract) counting against the luxury tax, so that they can rake in more cash from that particular pot. Under the new agreement, the posting fee still does not count against the luxury tax threshold -- but that fee is capped at $20 million, and now there's competition in the marketplace for the player in question. Even if an MLB team spends exactly the same amount on Tanaka as the Rangers did on Darvish, the roughly $110 million spent on Tanaka would be more bountiful to teams that rely on revenue-sharing than the $110 million spent on Darvish, because about $90 million of the Tanaka contract would count for luxury tax purposes as opposed to the $56-$60 million under Darvish's deal. And just about everyone would be shocked if the contract Tanaka ends up signing has a total value of only $90 million.
This is great for small-market owners whose interest in the game of baseball is mostly financial; they weren't going to be serious contenders for Tanaka anyway, as the Orioles have already demonstrated. For fans with a non-financial investment in those teams, however, all the new posting system represents is just another place where the old, familiar rules of baseball economics apply.