Who is Masahiro Tanaka? (And why do we want him?)


March 17, 2013; San Francisco, CA, USA; Japanese fans before the World Baseball Classic semifinal against the Puerto Rico at ATT Park. Credit: Kyle Terada, USA TODAY Sports.

Fall has already proven to be turbulent for the Mariners. Within the next week or so the M’s should announce their new manager, Kendrys Morales will either be resigned or gone, and free-agency will begin to shape the 2014 Mariners.

One name that has come up repeatedly in Mariners speculation is a right handed starter from Japan. But exactly who is Masahiro Tanaka?

The Japanese hurler has put up some incredible numbers this year with the Rakuten Eagles. Tanaka went a perfect 24-0 with a stellar 1.27 ERA/0.943 WHIP over 212+ regular season innings. While there are obviously differences between pitching in Japan and pitching in the MLB, these numbers simply can’t be ignored.

In short, he’s very, very good.

Scouting on Tanaka indicates that he’s ready to step straight to the MLB, and has a variety of pitches at his disposal.

"Tanaka throws a low-90s fastball that can touch 96 mph. Even though Tanaka can reach the mid-90s, his fastball is the pitch that gives some scouts pause because it comes in on a flat plane, making it more hittable than the velocity might suggest. Tanaka has two secondary pitches that have earned grades of 60 or better on the 20-80 scouting scale, including a 70 splitter with late downward action to keep hitters off his fastball. His low- to mid-80s slider is another plus weapon, while he’ll mix in a curveball as well."

It’s expected that Rakuten is going to post Tanaka this off-season, and if they do there will be interest around the league. It’s been widely reported that the New York Yankees will be pulling out all the stops to bring Tanaka to the Big Apple as Hiroki Kuroda begins to fade out, but other interested teams are reported to be the Red Sox, the Dodgers and the Cubs. The Mariners have been relatively quiet in Tanaka rumors, but as with all Japanese signings, there are always reports that the M’s are interested.

As I see it, the Mariners should be actively pursuing Tanaka. In 2013 the Mariners saw all-star caliber pitching (Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma) get foiled by their lower-caliber counterparts (perpetual scapegoat; Joe Saunders). Tossing Tanaka into the three or four slot in the rotation would make for a challenging starting five, and would take some pressure off of Erasmo Ramirez, Taijuan Walker, and James Paxton (if they get a spot).

I’ve said before that Jack Zduriencik needs to make a big statement in 2014 in order to get another extension, and bringing Tanaka to Seattle would certainly help with that. It remains to be seen how well Tanaka will fare in the MLB, but we can reasonably expect it to be positive, albeit expensive.

It’s expected that Tanaka won’t fetch nearly as much as Yu Darvish did when the Rangers posted a $51 million dollar bid to the Nippon-Ham Fighters. On the other hand, the Mariners will definitely need to dig into their wallets to get close to him. With interest from the Yankees, Red Sox and Dodgers, you know there’s going to be lots of money floating around.

There seems to be only one major concern about Tanaka, and that is whether or not his arm will still be good after pitching in Japan for a few years.

Just a few days ago, Tanaka took the Eagles to the Japan Series where he lost game six (his first loss of the season). However, in what seems to us like an insane decision, Tanaka emerged from the dugout 24 hours later and threw an additional 15 pitches to seal the championship in game 7. Over two days, Tanaka threw 175 pitches (160 in game six alone). In Japanese baseball, it is an honor for the ace to pitch out the championship, but I can’t see any situation in which that would ever happen in the MLB.

Japanese pitchers traditionally pitch for higher pitch counts than their MLB compatriots, but 175 in two days really seems excessive. It’s virtually guaranteed that any team that wants to make a move on him is going to be doing some serious investigating to make sure there aren’t any lingering injuries from overuse this year.

Bringing Tanaka to Seattle might not be a sure thing for 2014, but he would certainly bring the Mariners some potential in the upcoming season. He’ll be expensive, but as I’m sure we’ve all agreed by now, lets pour money into this team and see what comes out the other end.