Things have been a little quiet around baseball the past week or so as teams look to have taken their holiday breaks seriously. That can certainly be attributed to some of the lack of activity, but another reality is that many of the remaining free agents and teams interested in them -- pitchers in particular -- are all waiting to see what happens with the biggest remaining free agent: Japanese right-hander Masahiro Tanaka.
With the fixed (and what ends up being dramatically reduced) posting fee negotiated by Major League Baseball for Nippon Professional Baseball players set at $20 million, most teams figure to at least kick the tires on the highly-coveted 25-year-old right-hander coming off of an undefeated (24-0), Pacific League MVP season for the Japan Series Champion Rakuten Golden Eagles. Early estimates are guessing at a contract north of $100 million for Tanaka, and all of the typical high payroll franchises appear to be interested in trying to sign him. But maybe a little surprisingly, more and more reports of late are naming the Seattle Mariners as one of the favorites to land Tanaka's services. The Mariners are, of course, saying nothing about the possibility, but the move would make a lot of sense for the club.
After making a huge commitment to Robinson Cano, Seattle would appear to be in a good spot to go big for Tanaka, looking to capitalize on likely the best years of their new $240 million, 31-year-old second baseman. I recently covered some of the ties that Tanaka has to Seattle; things that possibly could give the Mariners a slight edge in negotiations with him, even though others have pointed out that perhaps people are making too big of a deal about any ties. True enough, that even with those ins, it will presumably also take a boatload of money for any team to convince Tanaka -- who is essentially a free agent welcome to choose whichever suitor he likes best – to sign. Can the M's convince him that Seattle is the place for him? If so, what would the Mariners look like in 2014?
First off, the rotation would immediately become a huge area of strength. If Tanaka can come anywhere close to matching his projected statistical performance, the Mariners would boast a top three in the rotation -- Felix Hernandez, Tanaka and Hisashi Iwakuma -- among the very best in baseball. Slot in the ultra-hyped prospect Taijuan Walker and fellow prospect James Paxton, the lone lefty for the M's, and Seattle would look to potentially be stacked in a league of their own, with a rotation of one through five all with No. 3 or above type stuff and ceiling. Dave Cameron -- as Dave Cameron is wont to do -- was a bit more reserved with his statistical analysis-style expectation for Tanaka, stating the obvious that there are a wide-range of expectations for Tanaka based on his profile, and that he'll likely be paid for more than he actually is.
Regardless, the average on that list is 3.2 fWAR. And remember, those are just the computer projections. So while about 41% of qualified pitcher seasons of the last 10 years have outdone that mark throughout MLB, just 22 pitchers exceed 3.2 fWAR for the 2014 projections, with only three pitchers being above 4.5. In reality, 61 pitchers have exceeded 4.5 fWAR over the last 4 years, so the projections are usually low on this estimation. But even if the number is only 3.2, only Iwakuma last year, Michael Pineda in 2011 and King Felix (8 times) have done that well or better for the Mariners in the last decade. Long story short, Tanaka represents someone that would be a tangible upgrade to other options in-house for Seattle, and probably better than any other arm on the free agent market.
He would strengthen Seattle's rotation by lengthening their rotation, allowing the rookies to work at the back end while employing a front three with strikeout and ground ball stuff. The Mariners infield defense, with Cano on board at second, figures to be a strength for the club this year. And just looking at the raw data, Safeco did play a little smaller last year after the outfield dimensions where changed, so getting more ground balls would be a good thing for the club's run prevention.
So let's get down to what Tanaka would mean to Seattle's projections. The composite average of the 2014 Mariners from Steamer and Oliver numbers on FanGraphs have Seattle at 37.7 combined fWAR from hitters and pitchers. If we add in Tanaka (and subtract Noesi, Beavan and Maurer's 224 innings), that total -- with the 3.2 fWAR average of the comps on Tanaka from above -- jumps to 40.8. Overall team "Replacement level" (which was unified between FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference this past March), or the baseline to grade team WAR on, is 47.7 wins. So the M's would -- theoretically -- jump from a 85 win team to an 88 win team by adding Tanaka.
And remember, those projections don't really factor in any player growth for the young guys, just project their playing time out to a full season. It seems pretty reasonable to expect many of the young players -- in particular Miller and Zunino -- to play even better than their modest projections. So with Tanaka, Seattle could have a legitimate shot at reaching 90 wins in 2014. And that's the goal, right? Getting to a position (roughly 90 wins) to be in reach of the post season? So Tanaka could very well be an overpay in terms of his contract. But the value that Seattle could reap from adding him could do wonders for the team in 2014 and beyond.
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