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Well, They Couldn’t All Have Him

The Yankees have reportedly landed coveted Japanese pitcher Masahiro Tanaka. So, what does it mean for New York, and where does it leave the runners-up?

Masahiro Tanaka has reportedly agreed to a seven-year, $155 million deal with the New York Yankees, landing with the team that needed him the most.

Despite signing big-ticket free agents Brian McCann, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Carlos Beltran earlier this winter, the Yankees looked like the third-best team in the AL East on paper before signing Tanaka. They lost one of the five best players in the league when Robinson Cano signed with Seattle, and their starting rotation looked thin, with David Phelps being asked to go from swingman to 32-start anchor and Michael Pineda being asked to hold down the fifth spot after not pitching in the big leagues since 2011. Some thought the Yankees would aim to stay under the $189 million luxury-tax threshold, but once they committed all that money to McCann, Ellsbury, and Beltran, there was no reason to stop and accept what looked like another 85-ish win season.

In Tanaka, the Yankees get a pitcher with a 93 mph fastball and nasty secondary stuff. Tanaka has shouldered gigantic workloads so far, which is often the case for elite Japanese pitchers, but the feeling around the league is that he’ll stay upright for the next five or six years. He might immediately become the team’s best pitcher, given CC Sabathia’s fading numbers the past few years1 and concerns over Hiroki Kuroda’s advancing age and poor second half in 2013.

Tanaka’s deal is the fifth-largest contract for a starting pitching ever, trailing only what Clayton Kershaw, Justin Verlander, Felix Hernandez, and new teammate Sabathia got. This is why the new posting system for Japanese players figured to help the players most of all, MLB teams next, and Nippon Professional Baseball teams least. Tanaka’s massive contract wouldn’t have happened under the old posting system. Two years ago, Yu Darvish — who’s a better pitcher than Tanaka — got just $56 million over six years. That was partly because the Rangers had to pay a huge $51.7 million posting fee. Under the new system, the Yankees needed to pay only the maximum $20 million to gain the right to bid on Tanaka, and that lower initial investment, coupled with the TV-money windfall affecting the entire sport, facilitated this monster deal.

Of course, the Yankees still might be only the third-best team in the division, given Boston’s strength and Tampa Bay’s roster full of young talent. But the Yanks are at least close enough now to the division’s top dogs to allow us to safely call this a three-team race … and mayyyyybe a four-team race, if the Orioles can sign an effective starting pitcher and get better production out of a DH slot that was a horror show for them last season.

Speaking of the Orioles: Where does today’s news leave the Birds and every other team that needs help but failed to land Tanaka? The bottom line was always this: One MLB franchise would get Tanaka, and 29 others wouldn’t.

Not every Tanaka-less team will be similarly affected, of course. The Astros, for instance, had no chance of signing Tanaka; they gave Scott Feldman’s future grandkids a college fund, and now they’re long shots to compete for any premier free agents this offseason. Many other teams were anxiously waiting for Tanaka to settle on a destination, however, either because they were bidding on him directly or because they were eager for the unusually chilly hot stove to heat back up.

Last week, I spoke with one general manager who was completely befuddled by the leaguewide standstill. “There’s just no movement at all, nothing going on,” he said. I posited that teams were waiting on Tanaka. “Why?” he replied. “That’s just one guy.” He had a point. While some teams — and some agents who represent players not named Tanaka — were bound to go into a holding pattern, it stood to reason that other clubs should have made aggressive “take it or leave it” offers to other free agents in order to avoid competing later against all of the Tanaka losers. The dearth of activity surrounding free agents who don’t even play the same position as Tanaka was particularly bizarre.

That Tanaka’s decision was affecting Nelson Cruz’s future, though, illustrates just how substantial the ripple effect will be now that the pitcher has made his choice. Tanaka hasn’t thrown a pitch in the majors, yet he’s already affecting a third of the league. Some teams were waiting to pursue other players until they knew what their budgets would be after this week; others were likely waiting to see how the altered market would play; still others were simply reluctant to bid on other free agents like Ervin Santana because they’d have to give up compensatory draft picks.

We now know which jersey Tanaka will don on Opening Day, and we also know this: We should see a flurry of movement across the league now that the Tanaka domino has fallen. As such, here’s a look at what might be next for the teams that lost out on Tanaka, plus some predictions for the clubs that were simply waiting for the hot stove flame to rekindle.

Arizona Trades for David Price

David Price

The Diamondbacks aren’t going to be content with scraps now that they’ve failed to land Tanaka. GM Kevin Towers’s aggressive moves over the past couple of years, combined with consecutive .500 seasons, put the onus on the Diamondbacks to win in 2014. An even bigger driving force could be the team’s local TV deal with Fox Sports Arizona, which expires after next season. In 2007, Arizona signed an eight-year deal with the regional sports network that was set to pay out $250 million, double the annual take from the team’s previous agreement. That $31-million-a-year deal now looks suspiciously low compared to the windfalls other teams have landed since, including franchises that play in smaller markets. It’s very likely that Arizona will be a much richer team two years from now after it signs a new deal, so spending a little extra cash in anticipation is more than reasonable.

Trading for Price would fit perfectly with Towers’s gunslinger approach to roster construction. Price would give the Snakes an elite left-handed starter one year removed from a Cy Young win, and he could help eat into the advantage the rival Dodgers have amassed in starting pitching. Plus, Arizona’s impending TV deal should line up well with Price’s contract status: Price is slated to make $14 million this year, and has one year of arbitration remaining before becoming a free agent. If Price were amenable to signing an extension after this season, the Diamondbacks would likely be willing to package Archie Bradley, a 21-year-old righty who’s considered one of the best pitching prospects in the game, in a deal with the Rays. Call this one an informed hunch.

The Dodgers Lock Up Hanley Ramirez, Then Wait for the Next Chance to Buy

The Dodgers could have outbid everyone for Tanaka, but their rotation will still be outstanding without him. Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke, Hyun-Jin Ryu, and Dan Haren should be collectively excellent, and a non-Tanaka pitcher will replace either Josh Beckett (who’s coming back from thoracic outlet syndrome surgery) or Chad Billingsley (who’s expected back around June following Tommy John surgery). With Tanaka out of the mix, the Dodgers could pursue someone like Bronson Arroyo. Or they could give the fifth slot to Zach Lee, the 2010 first-round draft pick who posted a strikeout-to-walk rate just shy of 4-to-1 in Double-A last year, and then turn their attention to locking up their stud shortstop, who’s a free agent after this season. Plus, if Lee struggles and Beckett and Billingsley fail to return, the Dodgers won’t hesitate to shop for another arm via trade.

The Angels Settle for Ubaldo Jimenez

Jimenez’s ground ball rates have fallen significantly from 2008’s peak of 54.4 percent, and he’s only a year removed from ceding 25 homers in just 176.2 innings with the Indians. The Angels’ ballpark plays well for fly ball pitchers, though, making Jimenez’s fading ground ball rates less of a concern. Plus, he’s coming off a career-high 25 percent strikeout rate, and at 30 years old2 he’d bring a veteran presence to a pitching staff still dotted with question marks. The Angels got Tyler Skaggs from the Diamondbacks and Hector Santiago from the White Sox in the three-team Mark Trumbo deal earlier this winter, but they still need more proven arms to complement Jered Weaver (who isn’t what he used to be) and C.J. Wilson.

Toronto Signs Ervin Santana

Ervin Santana

For most suitors, signing Santana would mean sacrificing a first-round draft pick. Not for the Blue Jays, however. Toronto owns both the no. 9 and 11 overall picks in the 2014 amateur draft, and both of those selections are protected, so the Jays would merely have to surrender a second-rounder. The Jays could certainly use Santana: Their starting pitchers produced the second-worst ERA in the majors last year, and so far Toronto has acquired exactly no one to try to remedy that problem. While the Jays should get a bit of a boost regardless from the law of averages, relying on starters R.A. Dickey, Mark Buehrle, Brandon Morrow, J.A. Happ, and Kyle Drabek in the AL East is asking for trouble. GM Alex Anthopoulos spent a ton of money last year and failed to get results. Stopping now doesn’t make any sense, and Santana would immediately become the Jays’ second-best starter at worst, and very possibly their ace.

Baltimore Inks Bronson Arroyo

While the O’s upped their payroll from $67 million in 2009 to about $92 million last year, most of those dollars went to players they already had: Adam Jones got a bigger payday thanks to his six-year, $85.5 million extension, while key players like Matt Wieters, Chris Davis, and others earned arbitration bumps. Neither current GM Dan Duquette nor predecessor Andy MacPhail really pursued big-ticket free agents over the past few years,3 and there’s no reason to think Baltimore will break the bank now. Duquette has publicly stated that he’s shopping for starting pitching help, however, and ESPN’s Buster Olney and others have reported that the O’s have talked to Arroyo. He’d be a cheaper option than Santana or Jimenez, and certainly cheaper than Tanaka would have been. Baltimore seems perfectly content to rank in the middle of the pack in team payroll, so Arroyo would be a good fit in that sense.

Cleveland Grabs Matt Garza

Call this one another hunch. Coming off a 92-win season and a playoff berth, the Indians aren’t likely to simply throw up their hands if they lose Jimenez to another team via free agency. Cleveland is a low-revenue team with analytical leanings, and consequently places a high value on draft picks. That could make Garza, who was dealt last summer and does not have a compensatory draft pick attached to him now, a potentially attractive commodity. While Garza won’t cost a team a draft pick, he brings other risks: He has made just 42 starts over the past two seasons while battling injuries, and his reputation as a battle-tested AL East veteran has waned in recent years. The fact that Garza may not fetch as much on the open market as he’s anticipating actually makes Cleveland a logical fit, however: The Indians bought low on Jimenez and could be willing to do the same for his replacement.

Detroit Settles on Nelson Cruz

Nelson Cruz

Cruz isn’t a pitcher, so the Tanaka link is less obvious. And the outfielder could still end up being a Mariner, assuming the earlier rumors of Cruz heading to the M’s have legs. Still, I think Cruz could be a Tiger by this time next week. Earlier this offseason, it seemed like Texas and Detroit were the two most logical fits for Shin-Soo Choo, as both clubs had corner-outfield holes to fill after addressing other needs by trading with each other. Choo picked Texas, leaving Detroit with a bit of a power void, with rookie Nick Castellanos currently penciled in at third and an Andy Dirks–Rajai Davis platoon in left. Cruz comes with plenty of baggage — he’s 33 years old, runs poorly and fields terribly, forces a team to surrender a compensatory draft pick, is coming off a drug suspension, and has sparked leaguewide skepticism over how well he’ll perform without the aid of PEDs — but after sitting on the market, he could come cheaply enough to convince the Tigers to take the plunge and worry about their righty-heavy lineup later.

Texas Signs Kendrys Morales

Derek Holland’s injury made Tanaka even more attractive for the Rangers. Since they’ve failed to land Tanaka, though, they could now get offensive help for nearly $100 million less, then count on Holland to return at the midway point or attempt to trade for another arm. By signing Morales, the Rangers would lose the draft pick they’d gain if a team signs Cruz, and that would hurt, especially since the Rangers have done a better job of developing talent than nearly any other franchise in recent years. Still, Morales would be a great final piece for an offense that’s already much improved following the arrivals of Prince Fielder and Choo. Mitch Moreland isn’t a strong enough hitter to warrant a starting DH job on a team with World Series aspirations, and signing Morales could allow Texas to flip Moreland for … well, not anything close to an elite player, but possibly a fifth starter to fill in for Holland or a reliever to replace Tanner Scheppers in the pen if Scheppers subs in for Holland.

Pittsburgh Tries to Re-Sign A.J. Burnett

This one’s simple. Burnett has talked about retiring, and the Pirates appear to be proceeding as if he might. And while the Buccos weren’t in on Tanaka, Burnett is worth mentioning here because he seems likely to return to Pittsburgh if he does delay retirement, which would take one still very capable starter off the pitching-needy market.

The Cubs Do … Nothing

The Cubbies emerged as a bit of a surprise contender in the Tanaka sweepstakes. After all, they’ve averaged 93 losses a season over the past four years, and their best players are minor league–age. This could be a great team in, say, 2016 or 2017, but almost certainly not in 2014. So why did they bid on Tanaka? Age and upside. Santana, Jimenez, Garza, Arroyo, and every other notable starting pitcher left on the market is 30 or older, while Tanaka is just 25. The Cubs were pushing hard to get him, knowing that they would have had him for multiple years if they’d succeeded, and knowing that he could have been the ace of a potential playoff-contending staff when he was still in his twenties. Now that they’ve failed to get him, they have no incentive to invest in a soon-to-be 37-year-old like Arroyo who won’t be around by the time the team is finally ready to contend.

Filed Under: MLB, Masahiro Tanaka, MLB Free Agents, MLB Hot Stove, Los Angeles Dodgers, New York Yankees, Arizona Diamondbacks, Chicago Cubs, Tampa Bay Rays, David Price, Nelson Cruz, Ervin Santana, Ubaldo Jimenez, Jonah Keri

jonah_keri

Jonah Keri is a staff writer for Grantland. His book, The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team From Worst to First, is a national best seller. His new book Up, Up, and Away, on the history of the Montreal Expos, is now available.

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