As we march through mid-January, the news on Japanese ace Masahiro Tanaka's progress toward a deal with a North American team remains the same as its been since the moment the Rakuten Golden Eagles confirmed they would be posting him: Everyone knows he'll sign, but we have no idea when, where, with whom or for how much. The latest reports have Tanaka back in Japan having concluded all his meetings with all the MLB clubs who professed interest, though only the Chicago White Sox have publicly admitted to courting him.
Of course, the White Sox are not the only team in baseball interested in Tanaka's services; in fact, there's not a single club that, if pressed, couldn't find immediate room for a fully-polished, MLB ready starter with a top-of-the-rotation ceiling. So the question isn't, "Could this or that team use Masahiro Tanaka in 2014?" It's, "How much more or less do they need him than everyone else?" Here's the status on each team in the Tanaka sweepstakes. Some have a…
Baltimore Orioles: The one thing the current Orioles roster needs right now is the same thing that the organization has failed to develop over the last decade: top-tier pitching talent. With Kevin Gausman's unimpressive 2013 and yet-undetermined role in 2014 and Dylan Bundy's ongoing recovery from Tommy John surgery, it is likely the Orioles' starting five next year will be another parade of guys perfectly good enough for the back of a solid rotation -- but not good enough to get Baltimore to the postseason. Tanaka would allow them to add the kind of young talent they need. The Orioles, of course, immediately and explicitly ruled themselves out of the hunt for Tanaka's services the morning after he was posted.
New York Yankees: The Yankees rotation enters the season with no real sure-thing ace -- Hiroki Kuroda had the results last year, but he's 39 years old and is well into the part of his career where it's worth worrying about his continued production just on basic principle. C.C. Sabathia had a very un-Sabathia-like year in 2013 (it was his first full season of 4+ ERA ball since 2005), and though he's only 32, he's been pitching in the majors full-time since he was 20 -- he's got a lot more innings on his arm than most guys his age. Ivan Nova keeps alternating good and mediocre seasons, and there's no high-level pitching prospect waiting in the minors for the Yankees to help shore up the middle and front end of the rotation in a year when New York really needs to compete. Tanaka would be a perfect fit for the Yankees on every front, and with Alex Rodriguez's suspension recently upheld, they should be able to sign him and still come in under budget.
Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim: The Angels are so desperate for pitching that they gave Mark Mulder, who is 36 and hasn't pitched in a game since 2008, a contract worth $1 million if he makes the team and up to $6 million if he sticks around. They too have absolutely no one riding to their rescue from the farm system, and their owner Arte Moreno has proven he's willing to throw money in the hole. Moreover, Moreno is also highly invested in the branding war he sees between him and the nearby Los Angeles Dodgers, and the Dodgers are also sniffing around Tanaka.
Other teams that come to mind in the "critical need" category are the Arizona Diamondbacks and Oakland Athletics. For teams who aren't in the hunt, have decent to great staffs already, or are simply in a place where they can wait until next offseason when aces should be available on the market without a posting fee tacked on, signing Tanaka is merely an...
Houston Astros: The Astros are not competing for anything in 2014 and don't have an ownership insisting they should be -- which would make Minute Maid Park a hard destination to sell to the free agent pitcher. But they do have the money for Tanaka (or they should, considering they just posted the most profitable year for a franchise in perhaps the history of American professional sports), and they do have a general need of high-end pitching talent that'll be ready quick. They've made progress on the latter front by selecting Stanford pitcher Mark Appel in last year's draft, and will likely build on it by taking top college pitching prospect Carlos Rodon first overall in the 2014 draft -- but since Tanaka's a free agent, the Astros might be in a position to spend enough money to make this not an either/or.
Philadelphia Phillies: Due to the existence of Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee, signing another top-of-the-rotation pitcher shouldn't be something the Phillies need to prioritize -- and it's something they haven't prioritized, given their apparently lack of involvement in the talks so far -- but considering the contract situations of half their everyday lineup, it might be easier to maximize the team's strengths than shore up its weaknesses. Ruben Amaro, Jr., has at least shown some sort of ability to identify top-flight pitching talent, and if Hamels and Lee return to their sparkling selves next year a Lee/Hamels/Tanaka top three might be enough to carry the Phillies into a Wild Card berth. But after all Amaro's other maneuvers, it's doubtful that even if Amaro had the desire to give a 25-year-old with no MLB experience a big open market contract, he'd have money left in the budget to pull it off.
Toronto Blue Jays: It's been somewhat unclear what the plan is in Toronto for this season, which is normally the case the year after a team decides to go all-in and falls flat on its face. On the face of it, signing Tanaka would be a risk just like trading for Dickey and Josh Johnson and Jose Reyes were risks -- except the risk for Tanaka is not knowing how he'll adapt to the American game in his first season, instead of the long injury history on the resume of just about everyone the Jays brought in last offseason. All in all it would be a good risk for the Jays to take, but it's doubtful at this point they have the money to stay in the game.
Just about every team in baseball fits into one of the two above categories, most of them in the latter. The Twins, for example, badly need top-end pitching, but the one thing that's specifically appealing about Tanaka -- that he's ready for action right now -- doesn't really matter much for them. There are a number of other clubs -- Padres, Rays, Marlins, Mets, Royals -- that could use Tanaka but either don't have the money or have already spent it elsewhere. Then there are two teams for whom Tanaka would be a...
Los Angeles Dodgers: The Dodgers don't need Masahiro Tanaka in the same way that rich guy down the block doesn't need a fifth car for his driveway: he's going to get one anyway, and you're going to regret ever feeling sorry for him during those years back when times were actually tough. But with a top three of Kershaw/Greinke/Tanaka, the top of the Dodgers rotation would go from one of the top two or three in baseball to the best without any real serious competitors outside of Detroit or Boston -- perhaps.
Boston Red Sox: Same as the Dodgers' "rich guy" situation, except the guy with the cars has a more annoying accent. The Red Sox, at least, haven't really been connected with Tanaka at all so far this offseason, likely because they've already filled out their budget elsewhere and are sporting a rotation with Jake Peavy as the presumptive #4 starter. Signing a guy with ace potential to be perhaps your #5 going into the season would be quite the luxury indeed.
How much a team needs Tanaka only somewhat intersects with how likely they are to get him, of course; the Phillies and Red Sox appear to have no interest in him, the Jays and Astros are dark horses at best and one of the teams that needs him the least, the Dodgers, is by far the favorite (as they will be in any situation involving throwing money at players until they show otherwise). It'll be interesting when we finally find out how much money teams were willing to pay for Tanaka versus how desperate they were for his services; hopefully, we won't have to wait too much longer.