The San Francisco Giants are clinging to an organizational philosophy that intensely embraces effective starting pitching as the ultimate key to success. The Giants are expected to pursue at least two free agent starting pitchers this offseason to revamp their starting rotation, which plummeted from elite status in 2013.
General manager Brian Sabean has unofficially begun the process of negotiating with potential suitors. San Francisco severely needs to improve upon a rotation that struggled last season while allowing a .251 opposing batting average. The Giants shouldn’t be dissuaded from spending big money this offseason, especially in consideration of new MLB television contracts, which will presumably deepen the pockets of big market teams, like San Francisco. However, the Giants need to make stingy decisions based on specific team needs, as opposed to overloading their pitching staff.
The Giants have already been linked to free agent starters Bronson Arroyo and Tim Hudson, although it’s unknown if legitimate talks have taken place as MLB Winter Meetings steadily approach. The most intriguing potential new-found talent is Japanese sensation Masahiro Tanaka, who was brutally dominant in the Japan Pacific League in 2013, recording a remarkable 24-0 record with a microscopic 1.27 ERA and 183 strikeouts.
The idea of signing a top-tier Japanese product is compelling, but it also renders significant risk. It’s not unusual for players from overseas to become successful in the MLB, although uncertainty over the translation of a relative player’s talent level often overrides the premier cost.
Texas Rangers right-handed starter Yu Darvish has been stellar in two seasons at the big-league level. The 27-year-old has posted a 29-18 record with a solid 3.34 ERA in 61 career starts. If Darvish continues to produce at a top-tier level, the cost would justify the means. The Rangers invested nearly $108 million in Darvish prior to the 2012 season, a figure that appears relatively affordable in regard to what Tanaka is expected to command.
Former Japanese superstar pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka also experienced relative success after making the trek overseas, registering 201 strikeouts in his rookie season before finishing 18-3 with 2.90 ERA in 2008. However, Matsuzaka steadfastly became erratic, failing to rekindle the stuff necessary to get big-league hitters out on a frequent basis. Matsuzaka now showcases a fraction of the ability he initially displayed upon becoming a front-end starter in the MLB. The 33-year-old veteran has been plagued by injury, surpassing 150 innings pitched just once since 2009, while also failing to record an ERA under 4.69.
Even though Matsuzaka’s struggles don’t definitively point toward Tanaka eventually enduring some kind of breakdown, the Giants should be weary of signing a Japan Pacific League player, specifically because of the talent differential in respect to the amount of money he would cost. In addition to the massive contract that Tanaka is expected to net, the Giants would also be forced to pay a posting fee that would likely exceed $60 million.
Hypothetically, Tanaka would demand a long-term cost of approximately $160 million, a figure that would essentially deter the Giants from upgrading their offense. San Francisco doesn’t need to buy into the hype surrounding Tanaka, especially in the face of other pressing needs. The Giants desperately need added production in left field and on the bench.
Risk is an unavoidable component of signing any expensive free agent, although investing funds in players that have proven track records in the big leagues should take priority over the glamour of snagging a Japanese superstar.