The signing of Japanese ace Masahiro Tanaka by a Major League team remains a question of when, not if. But the "when" might not be in the immediate future.
Citing several Japanese newspaper reports, the New York Times reported Thursday that the right-hander is not expected to be posted by the Rakuten Golden Eagles. Other reports out of Japan, however, indicated that the management of the Rakuten club had not made a final decision on whether to post Tanaka this year.
Tanaka was expected to set off an intense bidding war among Major League Baseball franchises. And with his numbers, why not? Tanaka went 24-0 with a 1.27 ERA for Rakuten in 2013. He was named the Pacific League MVP in Japan and won his second Sawamura Award, more or less the Japanese equivalent of the Cy Young Award.
Reports in Japan indicated that if Tanaka were retained for 2014 by the Rakuten club, he would be paid the equivalent of $7.7 million, making him the highest paid pitcher for a single season in Japanese baseball.
MLB and Nippon Professional Baseball concluded an agreement this week that limited the maximum posting fee to $20 million. That agreement may have been disappointing to the Rakuten club, particularly in this instance. There had been speculation that the posting fee, which gives a Major League team the right to negotiate with the Japanese player in question, would have set a record in the case of Tanaka. The previous posting fee record was $51.7 million for pitcher Yu Darvish, now with the Texas Rangers.
Tanaka is considered to be Japan's best pitcher. He is probably even more salable after the success Darvish has enjoyed in his first two seasons in the Majors. Tanaka, at 25, may be entering the prime of his career. The 2013 season was his best, but it didn't appear to be an aberration. He has a 99-35 record with a career ERA of 2.30.
A number of Major League clubs, including the Yankees, Angels, Dodgers, Rangers and Mariners have been reported to be extremely interested in acquiring Tanaka. Hopes were high recently when Tanaka informed his Rakuten club that he hoped to be posted this year. But the final decision in this matter does not belong to him. He is under contract through 2015.
Any club that needed pitching would have to be interested in obtaining Tanaka. When you come down to it, there are 28 clubs that could use additional pitching -- every team but St. Louis and Oakland.
And, the $20 million posting fee limit could open up the bidding to small-market clubs who otherwise would be put off by an expensive bidding war on the posting fee.
So if, in fact, Tanaka isn't available to bolster any Major League rotation for the 2014 season, there will be a certain level of disappointment for any club that had a hole in its rotation but had sufficient resources to sign him.
On the other hand, if Tanaka is not posted, that would probably be good news for one group of baseball people -- free-agent starting pitchers. Yes, free agents such as Matt Garza, Ubaldo Jimenez and Ervin Santana might look at least slightly better to potential Major League employers than they did when Tanaka was presumably available. In fact, it could be argued that almost any free-agent starting pitcher moves one step up the pecking order with Tanaka out of the picture.
But it isn't as though Tanaka will never be made available to the top level of North American baseball. It is just that the big payoffs -- both to the pitcher and the Major League team that wins his services -- could be an extra year away.
By reputation, Tanaka is going to be the kind of pitcher who can not only solidify a rotation, but greatly improve that rotation just by joining it. That kind of arm isn't available in great quantities in the current free-agent class. Tanaka was supposed to be, for some well-heeled Major League team, a quick rotation fix.
He still might be that, but perhaps not until the 2015 season. Teams with pitching shortages aren't much into delayed gratification, but at some point, some North American baseball team will sign Tanaka to a very large deal. And that team will consider that Masahiro Tanaka was worth the wait.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com.