There has been much talk about the Cleveland Indians starting rotation in the upcoming season and this has stemmed from Chris Antonetti himself stating that it was the team's number one priority to add more. It is to the point now that the Indians have discussed entering into the race for Japanese ace, Masahiro Tanaka.
At just 25 years old, Tanaka is one of the youngest players to jump from the Nippon League to Major League Baseball and his numbers certainly make it look like he is capable of it. Daisuke Matsuzaka, the $100M bust for the Red Sox was a year older than Tanaka when he signed with Boston, but he was never the pitcher Tanaka has been over the past three seasons. In the past three years in the Nippon League, Tanaka has averaged over 200 innings per season with an ERA of 1.44. For those who like big counting stats as well, he has won 43 games to only just nine losses over those three years and threw 22 complete games, shutting out the opposition in 11 of them.
There is no question he is a great NPB player and could be a great MLB player, but what will it cost to bring him home? First, there is the posting fee of $20M to be paid to the his home club, the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles. After that, a bidding war will ensue involving some of the most lucrative franchises in MLB history. Among his prospective suitors are the Dodgers, Yankees, Cubs, Tigers, Red Sox, Diamondbacks, Rangers and Angels. He is expected to bring in well over $100M in individual salary after the $20M posting fee. Now the question is, should the Indians bother getting into this bidding war?
The Indians have more than enough Major League level starting pitchers to begin the 2014 season if they had to today. After the known quantities of Justin Masterson, Corey Kluber and Zach McAllister, the Indians have Josh Tomlin, Trevor Bauer, Carlos Carrasco and Shaun Marcum all directly competing for the fifth spot. Every one of these pitchers has Major League experience and has seen at least some success at that level. Every one also has issues, whether it is wildness (Bauer), home run friendly pitches (Carrasco) or a return from recent injury (Tomlin and Marcum).
Outside of the tremendous cost, there is also a risk of losing one of these pitchers. While any of these pitchers could be a complete flop, they also have tremendous potential for greatness (especially Bauer). This is probably the last shot for Carrasco with the Indians as he is out of options and the only shot with Marcum. While bringing in a known quantity could help the Indians win right now, it could also cost them so much more in losing out on any one of the current options. The Indians have done this both ways in the recent past and the results were astounding. First, Jeremy Guthrie, who was a first round draft pick in 2002, was allowed to leave in 2007 after making just one start with the Indians. Since the Indians had a full rotation without him, they said there wasn't room on the roster. After leaving, Guthrie became the Orioles ace and is still an above average MLB pitcher with a career WAR of 19 in his ten year career.
The opposite of Guthrie was Cliff Lee. Lee showed tremendous promise in 2005, but struggled in 2006 and 2007 to the point that he was sent all the way down to Rookie ball. The Indians stuck with Lee and he made it worth their while, winning the Cy Young the following season and becoming so great a pitcher that he is now worth more than $25M a year. It is hard to tell now whether there is another Lee out of the group including Bauer and Tomlin, but there certainly is a chance and that could be removed if the Indians sign a player like Tanaka or the other top free agent starters ike Ubaldo Jimenez and Ervin Santana.
Getting back to Tanaka, the cost in dollars seems to be a bigger obstacle than the cost in talent. If the Indians were to give him a deal around $140M for his first MLB contract, it would dwarf the largest contract in Indians history, the $56M deal given to Nick Swisher last off-season. Not only that, but at $20M a year, he would be making about 1/5th of the team's total salary. While the Indians are likely to offer the posting fee of $20M because they will get their money back if they can't sign him, it would be hard to justify giving a single starting pitcher a fifth of the entire team's salary.
To make matters even more risky, Tanaka has never pitched a Major League inning, making him almost as unknown of a quantity as Bauer or Carrasco. While Yu Darvish, another Japanese import, was a great success in 2013, there is no guarantee on any foreign player. For every success like Darvish, there are many failures like Matsuzaka and Kazuhito Tadano. Don't forget that Tanaka comes from the same league (same team even) that Kevin Youkilis just signed with after not being able to cut it in the Majors. While there have been superstars in the Nippon League, like Ichiro Suzuki and Darvish, it is also the league that allowed Tony Bautista to become a superstar.
Because of this, Tanaka's stats must be qualified, and when they are, he no longer looks like quite the superstar. All the other options listed are already under contract with the Indians, meaning they won't cost anything extra, but the absolutely could be as good as Tanaka in 2014. Even if they aren't anywhere near as talented, there is no way that signing Tanaka would be worth the risk he is becoming as multiple teams compete for his attention.