Now, under the agreement finalized earlier this week, the maximum posting bid is $20 million, and every MLB team that goes that high -- there are expected to be several for Tanaka -- has 30 days in which to entice a player. It's a much better deal for MLB teams and Japanese players but a bummer for the Japanese team that loses a player of Tanaka's potential. Rakuten would get $31.7 million less than the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters received for Darvish.
So there is still some question as to whether the Eagles will let him go. If they do, though, the bidding for his services will be fierce. Do we hear $100 million?
All Tanaka heard last spring, though, were whispers. A celebrity since he led his team to the championship of Summer Koshien (a national high school baseball tournament) as a junior back in 2005, Ma-Kun did not look good in the training camp for the World Baseball Classic. A lackluster appearance against Brazil had his coaches wondering what to do with him and Japanese fans worrying about their supposed ace. Their concerns seemed justified when he entered a first-round game against Cuba in the Fukuoka Dome, down 1-0 in the fourth inning, and promptly gave up two hits, including an RBI double, and then a third hit after a strikeout.
The Japanese have an expression: Jinsei wa naniga okoruka wakaranai, which, loosely translated, means "You never really know what's going to happen in life." Though Japan would eventually lose that WBC game to Cuba, Tanaka seemed to find himself after the rough beginning, trusting his off-speed pitches and striking out five straight batters swinging.
With each K, the electricity in the crowd built, and so did his confidence. Tanaka is usually demonstrative on the mound, fist-pumping and yelling after a big out, but after the fifth strikeout against Cuba, he walked off with a cool look of determination on his face, as if he had figured it out. The WBC would be a disappointment for Japan -- it lost to Puerto Rico in the semifinals -- but it would provide Tanaka with the epiphany that led to one of the best seasons a pitcher on either side of Pacific has ever had.
The 24-0 record and the 1.27 ERA are self-explanatory. He faced 822 batters and gave up only six home runs in a season when a rejuvenated ball (the specs had been secretly changed before the 2013 season to bump up offense) helped Wladimir Balentien of the Yakult Swallows hit 60 homers. He had a WHIP of 0.943, 183 strikeouts in 212 innings and eight complete games -- uh, eight more than Max Scherzer had in winning the 2013 AL Cy Young Award.
Before he lost Game 6 of the Japan Series, Tanaka had won 30 straight starts over two seasons -- six more than the major league record set by Carl Hubbell of the New York Giants in 1936-37. He also saved one game in the regular season, one in the playoffs and Game 7 of the Series. Oh, and he won his third straight Gold Glove.
If his numbers aren't convincing enough, try these endorsements:
McGehee, who played five seasons in the majors before joining the Eagles last season: "He's a competitor, and that's the thing everybody likes most about him. The bigger the situation, the bigger jam he's in, he seems to always have another gear. You forget that he's only 25 -- he's wise beyond his years … If I was in a situation to have him on a team, I'd take him any day, anywhere, any time."