1/13/2014 7:14 P.M. ET
Angels said to be among Tanaka's favorites
By Alden Gonzalez / MLB.com
ANAHEIM -- The Angels offer a prime location, boast a star-studded team and have available funds. And according to a weekend report from the Japanese publication Sports Hochi, that combination has made them among three favorites -- along with the Yankees and Dodgers -- to land coveted 25-year-old right-hander Masahiro Tanaka.
But 11 days remain in Tanaka's free agency, with Major League clubs given until 2 p.m. PT on Jan. 24 to sign the Rakuten Golden Eagles' ace. The Cubs are prepared to offer a nine-figure contract, according to CSN Chicago. And ultimately "someone is going to come in and blow everyone away," a National League general manager told The Boston Globe.
In short, there's a long way to go.
And it remains to be seen whether the Angels are willing to offer a deal in excess of $100 million that would both pay Tanaka significantly more than Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson -- the two starters who would line up ahead of him in the rotation -- and likely push the club over the luxury-tax threshold of $189 million.
"I'm just not sure another long-term, high-salary contract is what the Halos need right now," said an American League executive, noting past deals for Albert Pujols (10 years, $240 million) and Josh Hamilton (five years, $125 million). "If you pay ace-type money to too many guys who aren't quite aces, your salary structure really gets out of whack."
But the Angels want to win, they could use another starting pitcher to round out their rotation, they have roughly $15 million of wiggle room under the luxury tax, and they have done their due diligence on Tanaka, who went 24-0 with a 1.27 ERA in the Japanese Pacific League this past season.
Tanaka was in Los Angeles last week, where he reportedly underwent a physical examination and met with multiple teams. But the Angels were not among the clubs that met with him, GM Jerry Dipoto confirmed, and Tanaka didn't speak to reporters when he landed at Narita International Airport in Japan on Saturday.
Since Hideo Nomo joined the Dodgers in 1995, it has more often than not been the case that players from Asia first sign with teams along the coasts, in places like Los Angeles, Seattle, New York and Boston. As one unnamed insider told the Toronto Star: "Tanaka wants to go to a World Series, wants a city where his family will feel at home, since they don't speak English. He has a desire to be on a team with potential to win and loves the pressure."
The Angels didn't bid on Yu Darvish two offseasons ago because they had just signed Pujols and Wilson, but do have experience with notable Japanese players. Shigetoshi Hasegawa was prominent in their bullpen from 1997 to 2001, Hideki Matsui was their designated hitter in 2010, and Hisanori Takahashi was one of their lefty relievers for a year and a half until being selected off waivers by the Pirates in August 2012.
Tanaka was the top pitcher at the 2006 Summer Koshien, the most important amateur tournament in Japan, and was the most sought-after Draft choice shortly thereafter. In seven years for the Golden Eagles, he went 99-35 with a 2.30 ERA, a 4.50 strikeout-to-walk ratio and 53 complete games.
There aren't a lot of pitchers in Japan who boast high-end velocity; at least not those who can throw it with decent command and back it up with a legitimate secondary pitch.
"That's what makes Tanaka special," one scout who has seen him many times wrote in an e-mail. The scout, who didn't want to speak on the record with negotiations ongoing, projects Tanaka as "a solid No. 2" starter in the big leagues and described the righty's repertoire as "an absolute knockout splitter and a strong slider to go with a plus-plus fastball."
There is one concern with that fastball, which sits mostly in the 91-92-mph range.
"It's flat," the scout said. "It's going to get hit. Hard. But it looks identical to the split, and there's not a lot of separation in velocity between the two. The slider works off the same plane, further enhancing the package, and it all comes out of a drop-and-drive delivery. If for some reason he falters as a starter, you've got Jonathan Papelbon in the bullpen."
But clubs aren't shelling out $100 million for a back-end reliever; they want the front-of-the-rotation starter.
And that's where the workload concerns come in.
Teenagers in Japan -- as well as South Korea -- routinely throw more than 150 pitches per start without a lot of rest in between, a treatment the longtime Far East evaluator called "disgusting." Tanaka went through that, following it up with a professional career that has already seen him compile 1,315 innings and, according to Yahoo! Sports, an average of more than 113 pitches per start over the last five years.
But due to six-man rotations and Monday off-days, starters in the Japanese Pacific League basically only throw once a week. And Tanaka's pitch count is actually on the lower end.
"Tanaka is an extremely good control pitcher, and he's very efficient," another industry source said. "He'll attack the strike zone. Yu Darvish, [Daisuke] Matsuzaka, even [Hiroki] Kuroda in his time in Japan, you wouldn't bat an eye at them throwing 140-, 150-pitch outings.
"Every one of the players that have come out of Japan have experienced that same thing -- a very high pitch-count volume at a young age. Some guys are built to endure -- like Kuroda has, like Yu Darvish has. Some guys, not as much."
Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Gonzo and "The Show", and follow him on Twitter @Alden_Gonzalez. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.