Masahiro Tanaka: The Big If

Marty Kuehnert, the American who serves as a senior adviser for the Eagles after signing Tanaka when he was the club's GM: "The first thing we could see when we got him was that he was much more mature than your average high school player. He just had that presence on the mound, like he was just in control from the get-go. Since then, he's gotten even more confident. And he's gotten bigger. He's gained a lot of muscle, kind of like Darvish, and he's getting an awful lot smarter."

Eagles pitcher and eight-year major league veteran Brandon Duckworth: "First and foremost, he throws pretty hard. Then, there's the split-finger, which he throws with the same arm speed so that it comes out just like a fastball. It's crazy because that thing just falls off the table."

Craig Brazell, the Chiba Lotte first baseman who had cups of coffee with the Mets and Royals: "His split is one of the best I have ever seen. When facing him this year, you just had to hope he made a mistake over the plate, and he did not make many of them."

A Japanese baseball writer, patting his chest for emphasis: "He's so strong in his heart."

Former Lotte Orions (now the Lotte Marines) pitcher Choji Murata, a 215-game winner: "While there was the fuss about the ball, he didn't back away from anyone. You rarely find that kind of performance anywhere in the world."

Eagles pitcher Jim Heuser: "It's been a lot of fun watching him kick it in gear, watching him just flip the switch when he needs to. Just from watching him last year, you see how he's grown. You can tell if he goes to the States, he's gonna be a good weapon for whatever team."

An unnamed MLB scout: "You can't really say for sure, but he's got the stuff, the ability and the mentality to be as good as anybody who's gone over."

The long (and getting longer) list of Japanese pitchers in the majors seems equally divided between seikou (Darvish, Uehara, Hideo Nomo, Hiroki Kuroda) and shitsubou ( Hideki Irabu, Kazuhito Tadano, Kei Igawa, Daisuke Matsuzaka. But Tanaka seems as sure a thing as Darvish was when he was signed at the age of 25, coming off an 18-6 season with the Fighters.

There are differences, though. Darvish has a relatively smooth delivery that belies the velocity of his pitches, while Tanaka seems to pause over his right leg before uncoiling his arm with a force that produces tremendous speed and/or spin.

Darvish is shy and businesslike, which makes the softer light in Texas a good fit for him. Tanaka is more approachable and personable -- the bigger fishbowls in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago should not be a problem for him.

Tanaka also likes to have a little fun. When the Eagles won the Japan Series, they did not forget Darrell Rasner, their American reliever who had gone home to the States for Tommy John surgery toward the end of the season. Reliever Koji Aoyama brought a cardboard cutout of Rasner onto the field, and Tanaka posed for pictures with his two-dimensional American friend. After the Eagles won the Pacific League pennant, Aoyama put on Rasner's uniform, which cracked Tanaka up when he saw it near the mound during the celebration. Tanaka turned Aoyama around and took a picture with him so that Rasner's name was showing on the uniform next to Ma-Kun.

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