The Chicago Cubs recently confirmed their interest in Japanese professional baseball player Masahiro Tanaka. The international pitching prospect has an impressive track record playing in the Nippon Professional Baseball league in Japan leaving no doubt as to why he’s being so heavily targeted by many teams in MLB. Is he worth the risk and the money that will will be necessary to acquire his skills?
International signings seem to be the new trend in baseball today. Many of the recent acquisitions have seen relative success, with the likes of Yu Darvish, Yasiel Puig and Yoenis Cespedes, but it cost a pretty penny to secure their talents. There is always a good deal of risk involved with any promising baseball prospect, but international players have a much larger price tag attached to them along with the risk. The Cubs have enjoyed moderate success with Starlin Castro, who was signed as an amateur free agent from the Dominican Republic back in 2006. They’ve also seen the other side of the spectrum with their 2012 signing of Japanese amateur Kyuji Fujikawa. It’s still a bit early to consider him a bust, but in his first year with the Cubs he posted a 5.25 ERA in 12 appearances before suffering a season-ending elbow injury that required Tommy John surgery. It’s a mixed bag and a true game of chance with young amateurs from overseas, and the gamble doesn’t always pay off as expected.
Tanaka has tremendous upside and also has youth on his side. He just turned 25 and has MLB-ready talent to go with great mechanics. He holds numerous Japanese and international records and a career record of 99-35 to go along with a 2.30 ERA and 1,238 strikeouts in 172 games started. He helped Japan take the gold in the 2009 World Baseball Classic, won the 2007 Pacific League Rookie of the Year and is a five-time NPB All-Star. Those credentials alone are quite impressive, but it’s also important to note the difference in talent level between Japan and the United States. Darvish comes to mind as a player that many have compared him to as well as Matsuzaka. That’s a very small sample size for a position that is arguably the most important on the baseball diamond. A small adjustment period should also be expected as Tanaka adapts to a new environment in a new country and professional league. The potential is there, but the stakes may be a bit too high for my money.
There are more than a handful of teams that have expressed interest in Masahiro, making the price tag seemingly that much higher. With teams like the New York Yankees, Los Angeles Dodgers and Los Angeles Angels all considered major players for him, the bidding war could be too rich for the Cubs. Not that the Cubs don’t have the money to spend, but with a bit of work left to do in their rebuilding process it might be a better idea to look for proven pitchers already in the MLB.