Japanese Baseball


Go Bold or Go Home: Masahiro Tanaka is the Next Great Fantasy Import

Yeah, I said it and I’ll say it again. The right-handed 25-year-old Masahiro Tanaka might just be the truth and is baseball's next great import. Now I understand, as do most MLB front offices, the risk in paying top dollar for an unproven international free agent like Tanaka is huge. For the risk-taking fantasy drafter, a big time ace in the later rounds can deliver you a championship (consider the frequently undrafted Hyun-Jin Ryu in 2013 – 14 wins, 3.00 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 7.22 K/9). Other imports, such as Yu Darvish, Koji Uehara, and Hisashi Iwakuma, have recently rewarded owners and came at a great value when they first arrived. This year, Tanaka offers savvy drafters that same opportunity.

Masahiro Tanaka has the pedigree of a stud and his historical performance in Japan just reinforces the notion. Keep in mind that there has to be a reason that MLB teams are falling over themselves to sign him. In high school, he led his squad to a national championship and broke Daisuke Matsuzaka’s 2004 strikeout record. Over the last two seasons in Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball league, Tanaka has dominated the competition and set a worldwide professional baseball record by winning 26 consecutive games. In 2013, Tanaka went 24-0 (1.27 ERA, 0.94 WHIP, and 7.8 K/9) and even appeared once as a closer - in order to seal his team’s first Pacific League pennant.

Considered by many MLB scouts to be a top-of-the-line starter, five teams have jumped through all of the necessary hoops to bid on Tanaka’s services (including a one-time, nonrefundable $20 million fee just to submit a bid). According to Nikkan Sports, the Yankees, Dodgers, Diamondbacks, White Sox, and Cubs have all submitted offers (each for more than $15 million dollars per year) and are hoping for the best. While Tanaka’s agent has yet to confirm any specifics about which teams are courting his superstar, the entire baseball world is certain that Tanaka will have until January 24, 2014 at 5:00 pm to decide where he’ll go. Should he choose the Yankees or Diamondbacks, Tanaka will be heavily leaned upon as the foundation of a thin rotation. On the other hand, the Dodgers offer Masahiro Tanaka an opportunity to complete an already potent staff (see Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke, and the aforementioned Ryu). The White Sox and Cubs each offer uniquely the same thing – the chance to be the cornerstone and ace for a rebuilding Windy City franchise. It seems that if his heart were set on Chicago, he’d have his choice of American or National League.

While Tanaka may be immediately compared to Yu Darvish, that isn’t necessarily the best point for comparison because of the two pitcher’s differing styles. Darvish is a strikeout pitcher who wants everybody to swing and miss. Despite Tanaka’s high school strikeout record, he pitches to contact and prefers to force easy ground balls – only going for a strikeout when necessary. His approach may cause some early struggles because of Major League Baseball’s higher competition level, but expect him to adjust nicely and post a strong rookie season in America. While his 24-0 record and 1.27 ERA are unrealistic (even for a perennial all-star such as Justin Verlander), look for Tanaka to have a season slightly better than Hisashi Iwakuma when he first arrived.  While his number of wins will be subject to the offensive support of whichever team signs him, Tanaka can easily post a 2.80 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, and 8.0 K/9 in 2014. If he does and settles into the role of fantasy ace, you’ll be happy for taking him a round (or two) earlier than everybody else and if you’re in a keeper league, feel free to thank me in a few years.




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