The Waiting Game

It seems everyday we hear a different story about Japanese pitcher Masahiro Tanaka.  One day his club, the Rakuten Golden Eagles, seem intent on keeping him, the next they’re going to abide by their star’s wishes and let him pitch in the states. The new posting agreement in which Japanese clubs can only garner $20 million in posting fees for their star players, has seemingly created a barrier for Tanaka to pitch in the Major Leagues next season.  However, if you’re interested in learning more about the Tanaka situation, I urge you to check out Max Fogle’s piece from earlier in the week.

In this piece, I want to touch on how the Tanaka situation is affecting three other free agent pitchers on the market.  Matt Garza, Ubaldo Jimenez, and Ervin Santana are all coming off nice 2013 campaigns, and yet remain to be signed.  Garza, Jimenez, and Santana belong in what I’d like to deem the “tweener” category.  Jimenez and Santana were offered qualifying offers and declined them.  Because of this, whatever team signs them will have to give up a first-round pick.  For players of certain ability, the loss of a first round pick has not been a deterrent, with Robinson Cano, Jacoby Ellsbury, Curtis Granderson, and other’s free agent situations largely unaffected by this consequence. And with player’s who do not cost a team a draft pick (i.e. were not offered a qualifying offer) their value has been inflated. Phil Hughes’ contract worth $24 million guaranteed and Scott Feldman’s $30 million deal are examples of such inflation. However, for players who were just good enough to receive that qualifying offer, but not quite there, the loss of a first-round pick has significantly hindered their free agent value.  Jimenez and Santana both come with a bit of uncertainty, due to inconsistencies throughout their career, but what’s really holding them back at this point is the loss of a pick.

Garza is in a different situation.  He’s coming off a season in which he posted a 3.73 xFIP and 2.2 WAR in 155.1 innings. Also, because he was acquired mid-season, Texas could not extend him a qualifying offer.  By most standards, Garza’s numbers are good enough for him to be valued as number three starter on a contender, and possibly more on a lesser team.  Tanaka, has been valued as a number three starter by some teams, with the potential for more as well.  Like all things Tanaka reports on his actual ability to pitch are conflicted.  However, judging by the market place and the patience teams have had with the Tanaka situation, international scouts have to believe he’s a better investment than Garza.

Although, it remains to be seen if Tanaka is actually a better pitcher than the aforementioned trio, his international status seems to be inflating his value.  He  does not cost teams a draft pick and because he hasn’t been seen as much as Garza, some of his flaws may still be undiscovered. Teams linked to Tanaka, the Yankees, Dodgers, Angels, Rangers, Astros, Diamondbacks, and Mariners, are all most likely interested in Garza, Jimenez, and Santana as well. Yet, Tanaka is their first choice, and until his situation is resolved the other three will likely stay available on the market.

Also, holding this trio back is the wealthy crop of free agent pitchers available next winter.  This argument was brought to my attention by listening to the show Inside Pitch on MLB Radio yesterday. If teams are going to spend big on a pitcher and lose a draft pick, they may be holding out for 2014-15.  The 2014-15 free agent class of pitchers is loaded with Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer, James Shields, and Justin Masterson as its headliners.  If Tanaka, isn’t posted it’s likely that some of his suitors might pursue cheaper one-year options for 2014, rather than commit to a long-term deal with Garza, Jimenez, and Santana.

The situation that Jimenez and Santana are now in begs to question, whether players in the “tweener” category, should have simply accepted the qualifying offer of 1 year $14.1 million.  This year, thirteen players were offered qualifying offers, and all 13 declined.  With added television revenue, teams, as evidenced by this offseason, have plenty of money to throw around. Despite this, recent years have also shown, the Tampa Bay Rays and Oakland A’s being the best examples, teams can win on cost-controlled budgets. The draft is arguably the best way to build a winning team at a low-cost, given the six years of team control on first contract players, and teams appear to be hoarding their draft picks more than ever. Jimenez and Santana declined their qualifying offers in search of long-term contracts and additional guaranteed money, yet, we probably won’t know until at least the Tanaka situation is resolved, whether they’ll get it. Garza isn’t a perfect pitcher either yet his track record is surprisingly warranting limited interest.  Tanaka seems to be the favorite choice, and until then Garza, along with Jimenez and Santana will have to play the waiting game.

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