Japanese pitcher Masahiro Tanaka's baseball future was thrown into flux Thursday when the president of the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles told a newspaper that the team might not make the prized starter available to major league teams as a free agent this winter.
Yozo Tachibana told Sponichi that the Golden Eagles might refrain from making Tanaka available through the posting process. Under a proposed system, major league teams would submit maximum bids of $20 million for rights to negotiate with Tanaka, and Tanaka would be free to sign with the club of his choosing among those that meet the threshold.
Previously, major league teams would submit bids and the club with the highest offer would receive exclusive rights to negotiate with the player.
"We have an obligation to explain to our stakeholders whether it's fair," Tachibana reportedly told Sponichi. He added that if Rakuten shareholders do not think the proposed rules are fair, "There's a possibility we won't take the next step."
Tanaka, 25, is a prime target for multiple big league clubs that hope he can have an impact similar to the one Yu Darvish has had with Texas. When Darvish came to the U.S. in January 2012, the Rangers gave him a six-year, $60 million contract on top of the $51.7 million posting fee they paid to his former club, the Nippon Ham Fighters. Darvish led the American League with 277 strikeouts this past season and finished second to Detroit's Max Scherzer in Cy Young Award balloting.
Tanaka is 99-35 with a 2.30 ERA in seven seasons with Rakuten. The New York Yankees, Los Angeles Dodgers, Chicago Cubs, Arizona Diamondbacks and Los Angeles Angels are among the clubs expected to have interest in him.
The proposed rules would result in a significantly lower payout to the posting club -- in this case, Rakuten -- while giving Tanaka a wider range of teams in the bidding. According to reports out of Japan, 11 of Nippon Baseball's 12 teams agreed to the $20 million maximum fee and the proposed system, while Rakuten was the dissenter.
Changes to the posting system have been an ongoing topic of discussion between MLB and Nippon Baseball, with the respective players unions in Japan and the U.S. also having significant input in the process. Last week, officials from Nippon Baseball traveled to New York for conversations with MLB senior vice presidents Dan Halem and Kim Ng, who are overseeing talks on behalf of MLB.
Officials from MLB and its players' association are hoping to get Tanaka's situation resolved as quickly as possible, because his status could have an impact on Matt Garza, Ervin Santana, Ubaldo Jimenez and other top free agents who might have to wait in line to see how the market for their services shakes out.
If Rakuten ultimately decides to make Tanaka available through the posting process, he will have a 30-day window to negotiate a deal with a major league club.