Masahiro Tanaka Signing Would Fit Phillies’ Strategy


A Tanaka Signing Would Be In Line With Management’s Last Two Off-seasons. Mandatory Credit: Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

The Phillies are a team in a state of flux. In one respect, they’re a team with a few hundred million dollars in commitments to aging veterans, and with a 2014 payroll currently around $165 million, have spent more than enough to expect to compete.

On the other hand, they are realistic that the way they’ve chosen to spend that money to this point hasn’t worked as hoped. Those players aren’t getting younger, and their window isn’t exactly getting wider.

They’ve tightened the belt in the past two off-seasons by shrinking long term commitments, preserving draft picks, and trying to cultivate youth to build a team around.

General manager Ruben Amaro has avoided any big name free agents or trade targets in the last two seasons, instead opting for players like Michael Young, Marlon Byrd, Carlos Ruiz, Roberto Hernandez, John Lannan, et al.

As the team sits around $165 million for 2014, they stand $5 million short of the $170 million internal payroll limit mentioned by Amaro himself. Based on that math, you’d expect the Phillies to not be serious contenders for newly-minted, top free agent pitcher Masahiro Tanaka.

Reports indicate he’ll cost teams at least $17 million a year, probably for six or seven seasons. We’re looking at a $100+ million commitment for a guy who’s never pitched in America. That’s before the $20 million posting fee to his former team, the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles.

There are a mountain of teams who all have more immediate needs for his services, whether they’ve made large financial “win-now” commitments, or have openly sought out top shelf pitching this off-season.

This is why the Phillies’ odds of signing him aren’t very high. Other teams have more incentive to sign him now (here’s looking at you, Yankees), and he’ll be more expensive than ownership was previously willing to spend.

HOWEVER, he would make a mountain of sense to have on the roster in 2014, and, more importantly, in years after his signing.

Masahiro Tanaka is 25-years old. He’s pitched at an extremely high level in Japan, and is receiving some favorable comparisons.

Something near Haren’s progression through ages 26-31 and he’d probably be worth his cost. Also, because of his age, he could be a strong rotational building block for the next 5-7 years.

He, uniquely among current free agents, would provide the Phillies with youth, talent, and very importantly, wouldn’t cost the team a draft pick (despite having a protected first round pick, the team has smartly protected their second round pick, currently at position 47).

The team has been avoiding high costs this off-season, and that’s a combination of attempts to shrink long-term commitments, and the right players not being available at this juncture. Right now, the team is less concerned with top free agents at a position, and more concerned with getting younger and protecting draft picks.

You’ll laugh at the idea of “getting younger,” given the Byrd and Ruiz signings, but there’s a reason they signed Byrd on day one for $16 million, instead of making any real attempt at Beltran or Cruz.

They are smaller commitments, don’t require a draft pick, and won’t be leaving any budding prospects blocked at AAA in 2-3 years. What the Yankees are doing now is a true “win-now” attitude.

The Phillies and Yankees have similarly large budgets to work with, if ownership is convinced they can win.

The Yankees signed Beltran and McCann. The Phillies re-signed Byrd and Ruiz.

Guess which one is convinced.

If we’re talking about youth, there aren’t any young guys worth signing without an attached draft pick. There also aren’t veterans to get on a short deal who provide significantly more upside than Byrd or Carlos Ruiz. They’re placeholders: consistent, and very moveable if it’s deemed a sell-off is required.

On the other hand, Tanaka is the right talent, at the right age, in the right situation. The amount of wear on his arm IS worrisome, but as seen with management’s signing (then re-negotiation) of Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez last season, if there’s one thing to feel confident about with this Ruben Amaro, it’s that he will do his homework in terms of health issues.

If there’s a problem with the x-rays, obviously don’t pull the trigger at full price. This argument is predicated on him being healthy.

Mentioning MAG also brings the “international market” issue to the forefront – the Phillies have traditionally avoided major international signings. But, as mentioned above, MAG’s original signing (6-years/$48 million) shows the team is willing to shell out a double-digit AAV to the right guy, regardless of MLB experience.

Presuming he passes his physical, Tanaka has the potential of a middle-top rotation starter, is young enough to build a team around, and doesn’t cost a draft pick to the signing team. He would allow the Phillies to pencil in two foundational pieces in the rotation for the next 5+ years (he, Cole Hamels, and depending on development, Jesse Biddle).

While he would cost a fair amount of money, the lack of long term commitments added in the last two seasons make his salary in the final years of his contract do-able. With a potential Jonathan Papelbon trade, his short term salary would become less of an issue, as well.

Given that Hamels and Cliff Lee are the only impact starters, and both are LHP, Tanaka is also the most talented, best fit for an immediate hole the Phillies have as well (RHP).

As both of the two top starting pitching prospects, Biddle and Adam Morgan, are also LHP, there isn’t much in the way of cavalry on the way to help.

A Tanaka signing would additionally allow the Phillies to take advantage of Kyle Kendrick‘s inflated value on the trade market – a value which is additionally increased by the Phillies’ removing Tanaka from the market.

The chances aren’t good of signing him, and it seems like the team would have to move some expensive pieces to have to flexibility to make it happen, but unlike other top free agents, Tanaka would make a lot of sense for the Phillies to sign.

He would fill an immediate roster need, provide a long-term foundational piece, and his acquisition would importantly maintain the integrity of the farm system.

It’s essentially buying an MLB-ready, top 10 prospect, and drives up demand for assets the Phillies already have (if willing to sell at any future point). There’s a fair bit of gambling here – but outside of his work load, that exists with any prospect.

In general, someone with his talent, age, and circumstances would make a lot of sense for a team with big pockets looking for players to build around.

Also, it would make the Yankees mad. Everyone wins.