Thursday, November 7, 2013

Masahiro Tanaka scouting profile: He's good, and the Dodgers could use him

Masahiro Tanaka is the best free agent pitcher available (even if he isn't, yet) this winter, and the Dodgers need to sign him.

I know, how can a team with Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke and Hyun-Jin Ryu need to sign another starting pitcher with a No. 2 ceiling? Well, come playoff time, the Dodgers would be able to rely on him to throw, unlike what they did this year with Ricky Nolasco. Nolasco is a solid pitcher, but Tanaka -- despite not having thrown a pitch in the majors -- is a superior pitcher.

Tanaka, 25, isn’t the next Yu Darvish. Darvish is an unquestioned ace and worth every penny the Texas Rangers paid for him. In hindsight, it was a really good deal. Tanaka is a younger, better version of Hiroki Kuroda. That isn’t a straight race-based comparison. Tanaka is a little smaller than Kuroda, but their deliveries and arsenals are similar -- well, at least their first four pitches. If you want a non-Japanese comparison, a guy like Dan Haren, Anibal Sanchez or Johnny Cueto might suffice. Haren is particularly apt because, like Tanaka, he relies on a split-fingered fastball as one of his out pitches. But if you want a better physical comp, Sanchez or Cueto is the correct choice.

Tanaka isn’t a huge strikeout pitcher. He struck out 8.5 batters per nine innings in his 1,315 innings in Japan. That’s good, but not Darvish- or Hideo Nomo-esque.

His repertoire is insanely diverse, as he sports a four-seam fastball, two-seam fastball, splitter, cut fastball, slider, curveball and changeup.

Editor's note: A lot of this information is gathered from scouting reports, video and this great write-up on Tanaka.

Tanaka’s four-seamer is a 90-93 MPH offering that touches 95 MPH on occasion. Not elite velocity, but good enough to be a successful major leaguer. He’ll need to throw inside -- with pinpoint control -- to keep hitters from diving out over the plate and sitting on his off-speed pitches.

His two-seamer is a pitch that Tanaka throws against both lefties and righties. At 88-90 MPH, it can bore inside to righties and has some arm-side action against left-handers. And he has a tendency to throw the pitch up in the zone, which won’t fly in the bigs.

He has two legitimate out pitches in his slider and splitter. His slider is a true weapon against right-handers, as it’s a pitch he snaps off, which generates plenty of swings-and-misses. Like any pitcher who throws a good slider, he can rely on it too much, and that leads to hanging sliders. It’s a low-80s offering that is a plus pitch.

Tanaka’s splitter is his bread and butter pitch. It’s the pitch that will separate him from many pitchers in the majors. He throws it in the mid-80s and gets a lot of awkward swings on the pitch. When he comes over, this pitch should make him a dynamic starter.

If those four pitches weren’t enough, he also throws two more off-speed pitches in a curveball and changeup. While he didn’t use either often (and he won’t in the major leagues), it’s nice to know the pitches are there. His changeup is just a slower variation of his splitter, so he could probably scrap that pitch with relative ease.

While he has the repertoire, Tanaka’s frame is a little concerning (only a little). He’s listed at 6’2, 200 pounds, but that’s a little generous. He’s probably closer to 6’0 or 6’1, which -- believe it or not -- makes a difference. Tanaka relies on drop-and-drive mechanics due to his center of gravity. It’s a high-effort delivery that allows him to generate the velocity needed to be successful.

Higher effort leads to more risk of injury. Injury is a risk for any baseball player, but it seems to be more pronounced with pitchers. So many things have to go right for a pitcher to remain healthy. Tanaka has been relatively healthy in his Japanese career, despite his less-than-perfect delivery and heavy workload.

Heavy workloads aren’t uncommon in Japan. Tanaka routinely pitched more than seven innings. In 28 games this season (27 starts), he threw 212 innings. It takes Major League pitchers 30-plus starts to even get to 200 innings. The game is different in Japan compared to how it’s played in MLB, but Tanaka was the definition of a workhorse. At 22 years old in 2011, he started 27 games and completed 14 of them. He averaged 8.4 innings per start.

In the final two games of the Japan Series, Tanaka took the ball. In Game 6, he threw 160 pitches in a loss. The next day, he threw 16 pitches in relief, picked up the save and clinched the series for the Rakuten Eagles. A quarter-century ago, that wouldn’t have been such shocking news. Now, with the way the game is managed in the states, it’s unheard of. It’s prompted some to wonder about Tanaka’s long-term health and potential effectiveness.

Despite that, I’m all-in on Tanaka. If the Dodgers don’t come away with the righty, they’ll almost be forced to pull the trigger on a David Price trade. If it comes to that, the Tampa Bay Rays just might get three or four of the Dodgers’ top prospects (in a top-heavy system) for Price’s services.

Price is great and established, but the Dodgers can’t afford to give up that much for him. That puts extra pressure on the team to do whatever it can to land Tanaka.

The posting system has expired and is subject to change. There’s a delay and there’s no word about when the system will be reinstated. If it is, there are likely to be changes.

Before, teams submitted blind posting fees for posted players. The highest bid would win exclusive one-month negotiating rights with the player. If the player did not sign, he would be pulled back and possibly reposted the next season. The posting fee is generally more than the salary the player ended up getting. Now, MLB wants to allow the player to earn more money, with less money going to the posting team. The new system would also allow the player to choose from three teams, and the player doesn’t necessarily have to choose the team that bid the most. The terms aren’t fully agreed upon, hence the delay.

Landing Tanaka should top the Dodgers’ offseason shopping list. Well, after they sign Kershaw to the richest contract for a pitcher in MLB history. Somehow, that still hasn’t happened. Soon… hopefully.

Photo credit: Neier, Wikimedia Commons

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