The Orioles have spent their off-season making attempts to marginally improve the situations at second base and left field. That will happen if they are lucky. Their biggest splash was the failed attempt to get a proven closer. In doing all of this, they have completely ignored the most pressing need facing the team: starting pitching. The time has come for the team to get over their historic reluctance to sign pitchers to more than three years at a time and make a serious run at the best pitcher on the market: Japanese sensation Masahiro Tanaka.
Tanaka's eventual contract, plus the $20 million posting fee that will be required, will represent an eye-popping outlay of cash, the kind of thing that would be unprecedented in the history of the franchise. Tanaka would potentially become the first Oriole with a $100+ million contract.
Executive Vice President of Baseball Operations Dan Duquette ruled out the possibility already, telling Orioles reporters at the Winter Meetings, "The Orioles won't be participating in that market." It's not hard to see why they would balk, given their tendencies. Even teams who have a lot of money all of the time may deem that Tanaka is not worth what he will get.
Perhaps the Orioles have scouted Tanaka for themselves and do not think he is as good as many people say that he could be. Whether the team has even scouted Tanaka is not something we know. If there is a price where the Orioles would sign Tanaka, we don't know that either. All that we know is that, for whatever reason, they will not even be making the attempt to sign him.
They might think he is an unacceptable injury risk, which could be true. One elbow twinge and it's off to Tommy John surgery with at least one year lost. Tanaka's recent use is something that Baseball Prospectus thinks could negatively impact his future performance.
On top of that, the Orioles might not think his arsenal projects as anything beyond a back-end rotation arm, of which they already have plenty. Time could prove them correct in this judgment as well. He is not thought to have the upside of Yu Darvish.
If one part if the reason is that the team thinks they are plenty good with a starting rotation of Chris Tillman, Wei-Yin Chen, Miguel Gonzalez, Kevin Gausman, and Bud Norris, that would be a concerning thought process. That is a league-average rotation if everything goes well, which it won't, because that's how it goes with pitchers, and also with the Orioles. Things will go wrong, and what waits beyond these five is even worse. Down that path lies madness akin to Freddy Garcia in the rotation for over a third of the season.
Absent any other explanation, the Orioles lack of action in the Tanaka market feels like a simple unwillingness to spend money. Their actions to this point in the off-season have pointed towards this. The Orioles currently have an estimated $81.5 million in salary obligations for the 2014 roster. They paid out around $100 million to players in 2013. There will be an additional $25 million in revenue coming from the new national TV contract.
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More Orioles Finances
The money could be invested into any area of the organization. The Orioles may have some items earmarked to expand or improve scouting or player development. If the team can intelligently spend the extra money to improve the team in the long run, that would be a net plus. Even considering this, it is hard to accept that the major league payroll could go down from the past season.
With how things stand right now, the team could add a $20 million player and still pay out the same to big league players as they did in 2013. Though they seem determined to throw money at a closer, even after trading Jim Johnson because $11 million was too much to pay a closer, they aren't reported to be a factor in any other free agent who will command a salary of $10 million per year or more. Rather than earmark money for a guy who will throw 70 innings for a couple of years, why not spend it on someone who could go 200 for five years?
Tanaka will cost money because good 26-year-old players simply don't become available to every team very often. When they do, they will get paid. Eventually, if the team wants to get the best player on the market, they will have to open up the wallet.
There are always reasons not to spend the money at the top of the free agent market. Many of them are very good reasons. Few of these top-end players are going to bring value onto the field equal to their contract. They are all a risk. The Orioles, being the mid-market team that they are, can ill afford to bust on such a large signing. If Tanaka got $20 million per season, that would be 1/5th of the payroll in 2014. That could hurt them. That said, looking for reasons not to sign a player means that's what you'll find.
Just as easily, you can find reasons to support signing a player with Tanaka's potential impact. The most important of these is that the Orioles are in a place where one player could make a significant difference in their position in the standings. Improving from 85 wins is worth more to them than when they were terrible because one or two players could get them to 91+ wins, which will have them competing for a wild card or division title every season. The wins he brings are worth more than they would be to a lesser team.
Imagine if the Orioles had been able to plug in Tanaka to the 2013 rotation. It's not a stretch to imagine he could at least equal the results of Chris Tillman from the past season. Tillman had a 3.71 ERA, 20th in the American League. That's not going to have him competing for a Cy Young, but there aren't many teams that wouldn't have had room for him in their rotation. The Orioles in particular wish they could have had a rotation full of Tillmans. If Tanaka could have played a full season at that level of performance, what kind of a difference would that have made for the O's?
These four pitchers combined to make 31 starts: Jake Arrieta, Zach Britton, Garcia, and Norris. They threw 160 innings in those starts, meaning they averaged less than 5.1 innings per start. In that time, they combined to give up 100 runs. That is a 5.63 ERA. If those innings were instead pitched at Tillman's 3.71 level, that would mean the team would have given up 34 fewer runs. If our imagined substitute starter throws 200 innings, that's 40 innings that the bullpen is spared having to pitch.
In this scenario, the O's would still have Josh Hader, L.J. Hoes, and the 2014 competitive balance draft pick they traded to the Astros. They would never have needed to trade for Norris. They would have been several games better than they were, perhaps enough to get them into the playoffs, or at least close enough where one marginal upgrade would have made the difference.
They might have never felt the need to make desperation trades that didn't work out, namely the acquisitions of Francisco Rodriguez and Michael Morse. That cost them the money paid to those players and it also cost them Nick Delmonico and Xavier Avery, who were traded away.
Another benefit, which is even harder to quantify but also likely to be non-trivial, is the benefit to the Orioles from a marketing standpoint for having one of the best Japanese players on their team. Japanese media has thoroughly covered the star players who have come across the ocean to play in MLB. With the amount of success that Tanaka has had in the Nippon Professional Baseball league, he is going to bring as much or more attention in that market to whatever team signs him.
If the Orioles would not be capable of increasing their revenue by tapping into the Japanese market if they had Tanaka on their team, they might as well just fire their entire marketing department and instead staff it with monkeys from the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore. Based on the lack of creativity from the Orioles on this front over last couple of years, this may have already occurred.
There's probably not $20 million in money waiting to flow in to the Orioles from Japanese fans following Tanaka, but it should be enough that, combined with the value he will provide to the team with his performance, his contract should end up being reasonable.
Winning more would also bring in more money, driving further increases in attendance and MASN ratings. Making the playoffs would bring more money still. The team made an estimated $7.1 million in postseason revenue just from getting to the Division Series in 2012.
Does all of that add up to $20 million? Maybe not, but it should get close enough that it's worth taking a shot. Bring it all together with a payroll nearly $20 million lower than last season's, the additional revenue flowing in from the TV contract, the Orioles proximity to the playoffs as things stand now, and making sure that they have this player instead of one of their division or wild card rivals, and it's definitely worth taking a shot on Tanaka.
We already know that they won't, but it'd be a whole lot easier to feel better about the direction of the team if they would go for it. Bold action just for the sake of action would be foolish. There is much more to the pursuit of Tanaka than that. He is likely to be a difference-maker for whatever team signs him. Sadly, the Orioles are not going to be that team.