Dec 11, 2013; Orlando, FL, USA; Rakuten Golden Eagles president Yozo Tachibana (right) walks through the lobby during the MLB Winter Meetings at the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Resort. Tachibana has not decided whether or not to allow Masahiro Tanaka (not pictured) to sign with a MLB team now that Nippon Professional Baseball and the MLB have agreed on a $20 Million maximum posting bid. Mandatory Credit: David Manning-USA TODAY Sports

What is Masahiro Tanaka Worth?

Masahiro Tanaka has been discussed ad naseum around the internet since it was officially announced that the the Japanese right-hander would be posted this season by Rakuten. There have even been reports that the Mariners may be the front runner for Tanaka’s services, due to their mix of money, need, and possible intangibles (success with Japanese players, proximity, Hisashi Iwakuma) that may or may not play a role in Tanaka’s decision making process.

That said, I have yet to really put forth my thoughts on Tanaka, other than the possibility of a few mentions of my interest in his services, as if anyone would not be interested. On top of that, I haven’t seen too many posts discussing projections for Tanaka, so that is where the focus of the following will lie.

Dave Cameron talked about some possible comparisons for Tanaka, and because he is more knowledgeable than me in that vain, I won’t go in that direction. I may use projections that refer or are similar to that of Cameron’s, but I will focus more on what I think he will bring to the table, and how much money that is worth.

While not everyone agrees, the general consensus seems to be that Tanaka won’t be as good as Yu Darvish, despite being paid more. However, the comparisons to Darvish aren’t really that accurate outside of their nationality. They are not that similar in pitching style, with Darvish being more power oriented, and Tanaka more of a finesse hurler.

In my amateur, yet hopefully informed opinion, Tanaka looks capable of averaging somewhere around 3 WAR per season. He doesn’t have overpowering stuff, but he has been able to get hitters out nonetheless, and is just about the enter his prime. That 3 WAR mark last year would put him on par with guys such as Ervin Santana and Ricky Nolasco, which is a tad frightening. Nolasco signed for 4 years and $49M, while Santana figures to get something between that, and what Tanaka will likely end up with.

However, if you jump up a couple spots to 3.1 or 3.2 WAR (that marginal difference in WAR is not enough to really state any kind of real difference) you see names like Gio Gonzalez and Stephen Strasburg. A 3 WAR pitcher will generally fall somewhere around 40th in the league, which places him just outside of the “ace” range. Certainly nothing to sneeze at.

If we do return to the Darvish comps, Tanaka would be about 2 WAR shy of what Darvish has been able to produce in each of his two seasons, probably a larger discrepancy than most would hope for when an extra $50-60M is being talked about for the lesser pitcher.

In his post, Cameron set filters at Fangraphs to get some more accurate comps, that are based on pitching rates and styles, rather than ethnicity. His results found an average of 3.1 fWAR, with the top of the list featuring the likes of David Price and Roy Halladay, and the bottom featuring Wandy Rodriguez.

Both Price and Halladay have averaged 3.9 fWAR over their last three seasons, while Rodriguez was at 1.5. That is certainly a very big range, with a floor that would lead to a very hard bust for $100+M, but also a ceiling worth something around $23-24M per year.

The 3 WAR projection looks to make sense by both my quick estimate, and much more accurate, real-life comparisons. Now it is time to turn that into a contract.

Tanaka will probably get a 6 or 7 year deal. The international free agency rules make it so a player is under team control for at least 6 years no matter what, so it wouldn’t make sense for Tanaka to take less years, and essentially give the team an option for the last year. Just for arguments sake, let’s go with 7 years, in case Tanaka wants more security.

If Tanaka averages 3 WAR per season over that 7-year span (say 2.5, 2.5, 3.0, 3.0, 3.0, 3.5, 3.5), that is 21 WAR total over the length of the contract. Current market value is often believed to be around $6M, although with the contracts signed by Robinson Cano, Jacoby Ellsbury and Shin-Soo Choo, that number is no doubt higher now, and will continue to grow with inflation. Let’s assume $6.2M per WAR on the open market, to meet in the middle and make everyone happy.

21 WAR times 6.2 million $/WAR gives us just over $130M, or about $18.6M per year. That seems to be in the expected ballpark for what Tanaka will get, though some expect it to be more like 7/140.

That is a lot of information to swallow and process, so I will give some reference to make it easier to decide if you would be willing to pay Tanaka $130M like the above WAR projections suggest.

Over the past 7 years, three pitchers have accumulated between 19 and 23 fWAR, and they are listed below, again courtesy of Frangraphs.

1 Jake Peavy - – - 1081.0 8.48 2.53 0.90 .279 74.2 % 39.3 % 8.8 % 3.51 3.46 3.68 22.8
2 Mark Buehrle - – - 1454.2 5.15 2.02 0.98 .295 73.3 % 45.1 % 9.3 % 3.86 4.12 4.23 22.7
3 Max Scherzer - – - 1019.0 9.44 2.88 1.02 .302 73.7 % 39.2 % 10.4 % 3.67 3.51 3.49 21.5
4 A.J. Burnett - – - 1364.1 8.63 3.56 1.00 .299 72.3 % 50.2 % 12.5 % 4.15 3.98 3.70 20.3
5 Josh Johnson - – - 828.2 8.38 2.82 0.65 .306 73.6 % 47.4 % 8.1 % 3.45 3.18 3.43 19.3
6 John Lackey - – - 1128.0 6.97 2.45 1.00 .305 72.2 % 44.6 % 10.0 % 4.08 3.99 3.97 19.3
7 Andy Pettitte Yankees 1003.2 6.68 2.78 0.83 .310 71.8 % 47.4 % 9.1 % 3.93 3.83 3.96 19.1
8 Hiroki Kuroda - – - 1120.0 6.75 2.07 0.88 .282 73.3 % 49.0 % 10.1 % 3.40 3.61 3.62 19.1
9 Javier Vazquez - – - 994.1 8.45 2.44 1.15 .288 72.0 % 38.0 % 10.5 % 3.98 3.79 3.68 19.1
10 Ricky Nolasco - – - 1172.2 7.50 2.03 1.02 .307 68.8 % 42.1 % 10.2 % 4.32 3.65 3.64 19.0
11 Roy Oswalt - – - 1044.0 7.21 2.22 0.85 .301 73.8 % 47.4 % 9.4 % 3.72 3.60 3.66 19.0

That is pretty good company. A few of them are now old and/or retired, but all of them were regarded as above  average pitchers at some point from 2007 to 2013. Peavy, Scherzer, Johnson, Pettitte and Vasquez missed some of the 7 year sample for one reason or another, so their WAR totals may be slightly misleading to their skill level relative to the rest of the list.

So I think a good question to ask is would you pay the above pitchers $130+M over 7 years, or whatever the 2007 equivalent of that is? Are you willing to gamble on him being ’07-’13 Oswalt, because there is also chance he ends up being ’07-’13 Buehrle? I definitely think it is something you have to consider, and ultimately pull the trigger on.

I personally believe, justified or not, that Tanaka has a better shot at matching the guys at the top of the list than those at the bottom. I am sure some of that is the hype, but his performance in Japan, as well as the recent success from other Japanese starters gives me high hopes for Tanaka’s future.

So 7-years and $130 million it is. I might be willing to go up to 135, but anymore than that is almost guaranteed to be too much of an overpay. This team could be on the cusp of success, and another top-flight starter could give them contender-upside. No matter what the M’s do, their success is dependent on the development of the young players. But adding a pitcher with Tanaka’s ability would put them that much closer to the promise land, and would again show this front office wants to win.

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  • maqman

    Lewie Pollis at ESPN did a piece a week or two ago on the current 1 WAR value and says it is worth $7M. His method is based on historical numbers achieved and Dave Cameron’s $6.2M value is based on his future projections. Given contracts signed this off-season I think $7M is probably a truer figure. Additionally this number will be significantly higher over a 7-year time span, while Tanaka is young enough to maintain his production than Peavy and the above named examples over the same time. That said he is not a lock, he’s a pitcher, you pay and pray.

  • BigDog330

    JJ, well organized post. One question. Does the $20M posting fee bring your 7 year offer down to $110M or do you write that off as a cost of doing business with Japan? I keep thinking there are at least a half dozen teams that would be willing to give 7/130. Won’t someone have to go beyond reasonable? 7/150? 8/160?

    • JJ Allen Keller

      Sorry, I should have made that more clear. The posting fee is not included in the 7/130 figure, as it does not go on the teams payroll. So it would technically be 7/150 with the fee included, but only 7/130 against the payroll.

      I would certainly think a lot of teams will be interested. I won’t pretend to know more than anyone else, because I don’t. Anyone’s guess is as good as mine. But, I wouldn’t be surprised to see it end up at 7/140-150 (160-170 with the posting fee).

      I would just personally have a hard time defending that big of a commitment to a guy who, while I think will be very good, is still a prospect in many ways. I definitely think that Tanaka is going to get more than he would in a different market, or if he wasn’t hyped up so much. He might get paid like an ace when really he is a #2/3.

      It also may depend on what Tanaka values. Everyone likes money, but not everyone loves the spotlight of New York or even LA. Tanaka was also a teammate of Kuma, so that could be a factor. Seattle is closer to Japan than most places.

      There are a lot of variables, so I think it is all up in the air as to what he will actually get. I just have a hard time believing going much more than 7/130 (150 with the posting fee) would be smart.

      • BigDog330

        Thanks for the reply. I agree with all your points. Because I seem to value Kuma more than most fans, I wouldn’t mind seeing the M’s going slightly higher than your figures, assuming Tanaka might have a little higher ceiling than expected. It would be interesting to see what Tanaka could do as a Mariner. Since we aren’t winning yet, “interesting” would be a welcome addition for now.
        I would think Seattle’s intangibles would be better for Tanaka than most other teams. Maybe they can add an injury clause like they did for Felix to help differ the high risk of such a long contract for a pitcher.