The Tampa Bay Rays are waiting, and that wait may last another 18 days. That is the timeframe remaining for teams to negotiate with Japanese right-hander Masahiro Tanaka until he has to make his decision with whom to decide. There are some clear frontrunners in those talks, but nearly every pitching-needy team in baseball is involved in some capacity. After all, it costs nothing to negotiate, with only the winning team needing to pay Tanaka’s Japanese team, the Rakuten Golden Eagles, the $20 million posting fee. We have heard most about the New York Yankees, but we also hear names floated like the Seattle Mariners, Los Angeles Dodgers, and Arizona Diamondbacks. Not coincidentally, the latter three teams are also among the major players to acquire Rays ace lefty David Price–but those talks are on hold until the Tanaka situation is resolved. But there is one big thing that everyone seems to be missing: if a team really wants to improve their pitching staff for the next two years, Price–not Tanaka–is clearly the pitcher they should want.
David Price is a proven ace. The last four years, he has gone 61-32 with a 3.02 ERA, averaging an 8.3 K/9, a 2.5 BB/9, a 0.7 HR/9, and over 200 innings per season. He missed significant time with an injury for the first time in his major league career in 2013, but he bounced back with a huge second half and is primed to deliver another Cy Young-caliber season. He chances he does are very high. The worst his ERA has been the last four years is 3.49. The worst! Hitters have never been able to square up his explosive fastball on any sort of consistent basis, and he combines it with a cutter right-handed hitters are learning to loathe plus two other solid pitches in his curveball and cutter. The Rays are not rushing in the slightest to trade Price because they know just how much better they are when he is at the top of their rotation. The team that acquires Price gets a pitcher that they would have no qualms about starting in Game 1 of a playoff series no matter who they are facing. Dealing for Price is a franchise-changing move. Which team is willing to give up the cost to make it possible?
Now let’s compare him with Masahiro Tanaka. Tanaka is an extremely talented pitcher, but he has not pitched a game in the United States. There is concern about his workload going in both directions–he only pitched once a week in Japan instead of every five days and on the other side, he incurred extremely high pitch counts. Scouts wonder whether his relatively straight fastball will be sufficient against major league hitters, and he may need to add movement to it before reaching success. Then there is the contract the signing team will need to get him. Tanaka is looking at a deal for six or seven years and well above $100 million. That is a hefty guarantee for such an unproven player. The good news is that he is only 25, and the signing team would have him through his prime years. If Tanaka turns into one of the best pitchers in baseball, that contract could look very good. But what are the chances that actually happens? Tanaka has questions surrounding him and the risk that comes with him is extremely high. The first year or two could very well be rocky, and you never know exactly how he will turn out. Are we talking about a legitimate ace or more of a number three starter? And we have gone this far without saying that Tanaka faces the same risk that every other pitcher has: injury. Signing Tanaka is a move looking towards the future, and it is a leap of faith to believe that he is worth the money he will receive. There is a pretty good chance Tanaka will help a major league team win games next year, but if a team wants to win as many games as possible now, they should be looking elsewhere. No matter how high Tanaka’s potential is perceived to be, signing him for over $100 million is a desperation play.
There would also have to be desperation involved for a team to have to meet the Rays’ lofty demands to trade for David Price. But at least once you pay it, you know what you are getting. If a team believes in Tanaka’s ability and wants a pitcher that can be a rotation stalwart for the next seven years, they should make a strong bid to sign him. But if their goal is to win as many games as possible right now, Price is the clear choice. Let’s set something straight: David Price and Masahiro Tanaka are both very good pitchers, but Tanaka is not in Price’s stratosphere right now in terms of present ability. Acquiring them would be geared towards two entirely different things, and the risk is quite similar between them–for Price you have to give up prospects, while for Tanaka you have to pay a premium for an unproven pitcher. Teams have to decide where their priorities are and reevaluate just how fervently they are pursuing Price and Tanaka.