ARLINGTON -- Rangers officials suggested at the Winter Meetings last month they would be willing to pay the $20 million posting fee needed to sign Japanese pitcher Masahiro Tanaka.
That was before the Rangers signed outfielder Shin-Soo Choo to a seven-year, $130 million contract. When the Choo signing was announced, Rangers co-owner Bob Simpson said it would be "tough" to sign Tanaka.
That's not going to keep the Rangers from at least exploring the possibility of fitting Tanaka into their budget and future plans. According to multiple media reports, Tanaka is in the United States along with his agent Casey Close and is expected to meet with interested clubs.
The Rangers prefer to work in stealth when it comes to free agents, so they aren't about to tip their hand when it comes to a possible meeting with Tanaka. General manager Jon Daniels admitted after the Choo signing that his next goal would be to add starting pitching depth, but he did not expand on the possible pursuit of Tanaka.
"You know us, we're always going to do our due diligence," Daniels said. "But our focus right now is we could use a right-handed bat … and complement some other things we're doing. Pitching depth, we always like to shore that up. That's where our focus is."
Tanaka would be more than pitching depth. He was 24-0 with a 1.27 ERA in 27 starts and one relief appearance for the Rakuten Golden Eagles last year. He had a 0.943 WHIP and struck out 7.8 batters per nine innings. He also just turned 25 on Nov. 1. There may still be some debate if Tanaka is as good as Rangers pitcher Yu Darvish, but it's obvious clubs feel confident Tanaka will step right into a Major League rotation.
The Dodgers and the Yankees are considered the favorites because of their financial resources, but the Angels, D-backs, Cubs and White Sox are also interested. The Mariners are considered a potential suitor because of their previous commitment in signing Japanese players, and the Red Sox have had at least preliminary discussions with Tanaka's camp. Most of the discussions with all teams seem to have been exploratory at this point.
Clubs have until Jan. 24 to sign Tanaka, and the process will likely go down to that deadline. At that point, the winning club will also have to pay the expected $20 million posting fee, although one report suggested the payments will be spread over 18 months.
The Rangers appear to have a set rotation with Darvish, Derek Holland, Matt Harrison, Martin Perez and Alexi Ogando. Harrison is coming off back surgery but has resumed throwing and is expected to be ready for Spring Training. If the Rangers sign Tanaka, they could move Ogando back to the bullpen, although they seem to have plenty of relief candidates.
Two years ago, the Rangers paid a $51.7 million posting fee for the rights to Darvish and then signed him to a six-year, $56 million contract. Although the $20 million fee would be much less for Tanaka because of the new posting rules, the total financial commitment could still be greater than Darvish because any and all teams can bid on the player. That means Tanaka's contract will likely exceed what Darvish got from the Rangers, especially if the Yankees and Dodgers are seriously involved.
The Rangers are fortified with a new local television contract that goes into effect after the upcoming season, and they have shown the willingness to play at the top of the free-agent market. It will likely come down to how creative they can be as far as pushing their budget.
There are other things to consider as well. Clubs that don't sign Tanaka this winter could be in position to catch a bigger free-agent prize a year from now.
Next winter's free-agent class right now includes Dodgers left-hander Clayton Kershaw. The Dodgers have been trying to sign him to a contract extension. But if they don't, the three-time National League All-Star and two-time NL Cy Young Award winner will almost certainly be one of the most coveted free-agent pitchers ever to reach the market.
The Rangers are well aware Kershaw is from Highland Park, Texas -- a neighborhood inside Dallas. That may be a more attractive option for the Rangers than Tanaka. But right now, they appear to be quietly assessing Tanaka's situation to determine if it's time to strike again with another big-ticket purchase.
T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Postcards from Elysian Fields, and follow him on Twitter @Sullivan_Ranger.