It's not often that bonafide aces reach the free agent market, so it comes as no surprise that multiple teams are already putting on the full-court press for Japanese import Masahiro Tanaka.
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The Mariners, Diamondbacks and Yankees are all expected to be heavy players for the 25-year-old, and countless other teams, including the Blue Jays, Twins and Phillies, have also been mentioned in connection with Tanaka in recent days. Given the relatively inexpensive $20 million posting fee for the right to negotiate with Tanaka, most teams are expected to at least stick a toe in the water for the services of the former Rakuten Golden Eagles ace.
What the teams are bidding on is promise -- the promise of a bright future for the player who went undefeated in the Nippon Professional Baseball league this past season. Tanaka finished the year a perfect 24-0 with a 1.27 ERA for Rakuten in 2013, and still just 25 years old he's still got plenty left in his right arm going forward.
The three teams at the forefront of the courtship in the early going all make sense as contenders for different reasons. With the ink on Robinson Cano's 10-year, $240 million contract barely dry, the Mariners still need a starting pitcher to be viewed as a viable World Series contender in the American League. The M's have one of the best at the top of their rotation in Felix Hernandez and a 2013 Cy Young contender behind him in Hisashi Iwakuma, but the rest of the rotation is young and inexperienced. Signing Tanaka would be the biggest splash possible and would give the Mariners three legitimate starters while allowing promising young right-hander Taijuan Walker to slide to No. 4. It would also cement the idea that they're intent on contending in 2014 at any cost. Ben Badler of Baseball America recently called the M's the favorites for Tanaka.
The Diamondbacks' situation is a near polar opposite of the one the Mariners find themselves in. Arizona has a wealth of pitching talent but no true ace, something Diamondbacks general manager Kevin Towers is set on finding. Signing Tanaka would be the final piece for a team that believes it's close to winning the NL West in 2014, and Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports said the team "cannot be ruled out as major players" for Tanaka's services. A rotation of Tanaka, Patrick Corbin, Trevor Cahill, Wade Miley and Brandon McCarthy, with phenom Archie Bradley contributing when ready, could put the D'Backs in the discussion with the Dodgers and Giants at the top of the division next season.
It shouldn't surprise anyone that where a talented, expensive free agent is, there the Yankees are, too. The team spent heavily on position players this offseason when it added Brian McCann, Jacoby Ellsbury and Carlos Beltran, but it still hasn't shored up a rotation that was the team's downfall in 2013. Putting Tanaka in a rotation with CC Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda and Ivan Nova would suddenly return the Yankees to Evil Empire status. Even if they don't land Tanaka, it's hard to imagine the Yankees don't add at least one more impact arm before spring rolls around.
There's still plenty of time for other teams to get engaged and take their shots at landing the Japanese star -- the Dodgers and Cubs, two teams with the financial means to land Tanaka and not bat an eyelash, haven't even been prevalently mentioned in rumors yet -- but those three will almost certainly be in the bidding until the end.
Astros, Cubs Get New Stoppers
Two teams with murky closer situations added nice sleeper possibilities this week.
The Astros and Cubs, two teams without established closers going into next season, added veteran relievers Jesse Crain and Jose Veras, respectively, in low-risk moves that could turn out very well for the teams and for fantasy owners.
The Astros added Crain on a one-year deal after the right-hander posted a 0.74 ERA, 1.15 WHIP and 46/11 K/BB ratio over 36 2/3 innings in 2013. Crain was dealt to the Rays before the trade deadline but never pitched in Tampa due to a right shoulder injury. In Houston, the 32-year-old will likely have only to contend with Chad Qualls for save opportunities. Crain has been the better pitcher in recent years and, health willing, should grab hold of the closer job early on.
In a similar way, Veras walks into spring training with very little obvious competition for the closer role. The Cubs signed him to a one-year, $4 million deal that has minimal downside after he pitched to a 3.02 ERA and saved 21 games between the Astros and Tigers this past season. The erratic Pedro Strop is the only thing standing between Veras and the closer gig, so expect the 33-year-old to grab hold of the position sooner than later.
Hot Stove Quick Hits: The Twins are rumored to be "again kicking (the) tires" on Matt Garza, per Darren Wolfson of 1500 ESPN. Garza would be the third big addition to a rotation that's already added Ricky Nolasco and Phil Hughes this offseason ... Ubaldo Jimenez has reportedly asked clubs for a four-year deal worth $17-20 million per season. It's hard to see a team going that high in terms of AAV for the right-hander, but stranger things have happened ... Angels signed Mark Mulder to a minor league contract that could be worth over $6 million next season with incentives. The team will give the 36-year-old a chance to make the club as a starter out of spring training ... A ruling in Alex Rodriguez' appeal of his 211-game suspension "probably won't be known until next week," according to Mike Puma of the New York Post. A report from Newsday on Wednesday suggested a decision could be close. ... The Yankees won't be signing Stephen Drew. He's likely looking at a return to the Red Sox given how his market has failed to pan out thus far this offseason ... The Pirates and Rangers made a trade, with first baseman Chris McGuiness heading to Pittsburgh for right-hander Miles Mikolas. McGuiness is in line to contend for the Pirates' first base opening as the team's roster is currently constructed ... The Padres and Joaquin Benoit made their two-year agreement official. The deal will pay Benoit $15.5 million over the two years and includes an $8 million vesting option for 2016 based on games finished ... The White Sox also finalized a deal, inking Scott Downs to a one-year, $4 million pact. The lefty will serve as middle relief for the Sox ... Jeff Suppan retired after a 17-year career in MLB. The right-hander didn't pitch in 2013.