Pursuit of Tanaka captivated, intrigued for month
Half-dozen teams said to be serious players in competition for Japanese ace
Masahiro Tanaka's long road to the Major Leagues ended on Wednesday, when it was announced that the Japanese right-hander had chosen the New York Yankees and agreed to a seven-year, $155 million contract.
But what a road it was.
Tanaka, who had become a sensation for the Rakuten Golden Eagles of Nippon Professional Baseball with a 24-0 record and a 1.27 ERA in 2013, was the most sought-after pitcher on the market once it was revealed on Christmas Eve that he would be posted. The ensuing weeks of secretive seduction by a host of Major League teams made the pursuit all the more intriguing.
Things were kept so quiet that it's tough to piece together all the details of the process, but things began in earnest the second week of January, when Tanaka and his entourage of representatives touched down in Los Angeles and met with teams.
At the time, it was reported that as many as 12 teams would be meeting with him, and that the Yankees, Cubs, White Sox, Dodgers, Mariners, D-backs, Blue Jays, Twins, Indians and Red Sox were interested, among possible others.
The first team to publicly report meeting with Tanaka was the White Sox, but none of the other teams would reveal its level of interest, if any, until it was announced Wednesday that Tanaka had chosen the Yanks.
Amid reports that all of the teams that bid on the right-hander were willing to part with at least six years and $100 million in salary, White Sox general manager Rick Hahn acknowledged that his club had made a very serious offer.
"We view this as a situation where you miss 100 percent of the shots you don't take, and it was worth the effort," Hahn said in a Wednesday evening conference call. "We saw Mr. Tanaka as a player who could complement and fit in nicely to some of the other things we've accomplished over the last several months."
That sentiment was being echoed by several of the runners-up, including the Cubs.
It wasn't long after Tanaka had gone back to Japan that new Cubs manager Rick Renteria said that his team had met with the pitcher in Los Angeles, and that Renteria had even gone as far as ordering the language education software "Rosetta Stone" to bone up on some Japanese for the meeting.
Meanwhile, the Arizona Diamondbacks were heavily in the running, too, which was confirmed by Derrick Hall, their president and CEO, on Wednesday.
The D-backs jumped in early and went hard after Tanaka, offering to fly to Japan to meet with the pitcher and his family, or to fly Tanaka to Sydney, Australia, to meet with Hall, who was already there promoting the upcoming Opening Series with the Dodgers.
The D-backs were relegated to meeting with Tanaka in Los Angeles like everyone else, but they tried their own spin on salesmanship by bringing along first baseman and National League MVP Award runner-up Paul Goldschmidt to attest to the bright present and future of the organization.
"Goldy has been such a great representative for the Diamondbacks," Hall said. "He took time to explain to Masahiro why Arizona would be a great place to play, the opportunities that arise with a team like ours, and the impact he could have made right away. Goldy expressed himself very well. So when a player like Goldy sits in a room with a prospective free agent and speaks from the heart about what he loves about this organization and how he would like for him to be his teammate, I think it does have an impact."
It didn't have enough impact, of course, but it wasn't for lack of effort.
"I think we were very close," Hall said. "We made a very, very competitive offer. It was just nice for us to be playing with the big boys, and I think we did a nice job of illustrating who we were to the player. I think he had a nice sense of our organizational culture and our commitment to winning, and I think, in the end, we made his decision a difficult one."
The Dodgers were expected to be players in the Tanaka sweepstakes and made an official offer, according to published reports in Japan, but shortly after Tanaka met with teams in the Dodgers' backyard, the club shelled out a seven-year, $215 million extension for its ace, Clayton Kershaw, and it was reported that the Dodgers were not willing to break the bank for Tanaka.
There was bound to be the proverbial "mystery team" involved, and on Wednesday, it became clear that the Astros could have qualified for that designation.
Houston general manager Jeff Luhnow confirmed that his team was in on Tanaka in a big way, flying to Los Angeles with club owner Jim Crane and seven-time Cy Young Award winner Roger Clemens to try to lure the Japanese ace to the American League West.
"We did make an offer and were involved," Luhnow told MLB.com. "We did meet with him and make an offer."
Clemens said they gave Tanaka a ball from the 2005 World Series, and an Astros jersey with his name on it.
But in the end, the Yankees pulled out even more stops and came home with the gold.
Victorious Yankees GM Brian Cashman said Wednesday that the Yanks made the most of their two hours of face time with Tanaka in Los Angeles. They had eight people in the room, and they showed the pitcher videos that included a tour of Yankee Stadium and the show-stopper, a personalized message from Japanese star Hideki Matsui, who won the 2009 World Series MVP Award while in pinstripes.
"That was our one shot, and we took it very seriously," Cashman said. "It might have been overkill, but we felt like if that's the case, we'd rather go all out than fall short wishing we did a little bit more.
"We had to sell ourselves from afar, so we tried every option and prepared for that. We showed video and left a lot of material. We were there to answer any questions. Each of us had a chance to speak about what the Yanks are about and what we hope to be again, and [how] we'd love to have him join us to be a part of that."
That and a seven-year, $155 million contract sealed the deal, paving the way for a new era in the Bronx and putting an end to one of the more memorable and eagerly awaited player pursuits in recent big league history.