With the Christmas Day news that Masahiro Tanaka will indeed be posted by his team in Japan, the Rakuten Golden Eagles, we’ve all started fawning (more than before we knew for sure he was coming) over a guy who could become one of the pieces the Cubs can use to get to the next level in the rebuild. In fact, Theo Epstein was talking about just this kind of player when he said that he wishes there was free agency for 25 year olds. There is something we should all consider when we start talking about Tanaka, though, and it is that he is going to cost a lot of money. And he’s Japanese.
Being Japanese matters. In Japan, running up high pitch counts is a badge of honor. Unlike in the United States, where arms are nurtured and cared for, they are worn out and used up until exhaustion over there. And unlike the US, where athletes merely hide injuries, but eventually relent and tell someone they have an injury, pitchers in Japan work until it is no longer physically possible. All of those things matter. His potential for being injured is higher because his arm wasn’t cared for like that of a college pitcher in the US. That’s not to say he will get hurt, but it happens to pitchers more so than it does to just about any other athlete imaginable. His previous environment only heightens that risk. It’s the extent of the heightening risk that is unknown.
None of this is to say that he will bust. There is no way to know for sure that Tanaka will get hurt, and even with advanced imaging and scans on his elbow, there’s no way to know for sure that he will get hurt or won’t get hurt. I am quite positive that he will be X-Ray’d, MRI’d, CT’d, poked, prodded, and tickled like an Elmo doll before any team actually signs him between now and the end of January.
Injury risk has to be part of the equation. Theo was burned with the Daisuke Matsuzaka signing when he was with Boston, though. I am sure he remembers. And I am sure there will be a calculated gamble when it comes to signing Tanaka, whoever lands him. His age helps. Being young means his soft tissue is a little more elastic than it would be if he were in his late 20s or early 30s, as most of the other Japanese pitchers were when they came to the US.
EDIT: To clarify, I used fatigue interchangeably with overexertion, which I should not have. Having an exertion that is normal with a normal recovery period can make muscle stronger while relieving stress on tendons and ligaments. That is consistent with the way every team “stretches out” their starting pitchers during Spring Training. Overexertion is working until the point of physical exhaustion. Remarkable weakness to the point of significantly reduced velocity is an overexertion, and doing it as repeatedly as Tanaka has can (but not necessarily will) increase the risk of injury. There is no guarantee that he will get hurt, but since he has been exerting himself at this level for so long, and is just now reaching his physical “prime,” there is some risk to signing him. Whether that risk is the same as signing a pitcher who is older, like a Matt Garza or Ubaldo Jimenez or if it is similar to signing Mark Prior just before he was injured can’t be known. The key confounding variable to all of this is: Everyone is different.
What is unsaid about Tanaka is that he does pose an injury risk that is likely greater than an American pitcher at 25 because of the strain that Japanese baseball puts on its pitchers. The recency bias tells us that Yu Darvish looks sensational and like he was worth every penny the Rangers paid for him. That bias excludes the fact that there have been a lot of Japanese pitchers who have come to the United States as highly touted players who have just flamed out because of injuries or because the competition here is greater than it is over there.
Jeff Sullivan wrote about Tanaka at Fangraphs, in which he said that Tanaka is the market’s best starter, which is true, and that international free agents “represent limitless possibilities, and people naturally shift their attention toward the positive extreme.” That is also true. Sullivan dives deeper into the scouting report of Tanaka, which is tremendous, and his numbers back the limitless talent. But like any player, especially pitcher, Tanaka has an injury risk that cannot be ignored. It will not be by the front office, and it shouldn’t be by fans. After all, we’ve seen this movie before, haven’t we?
Right, Kerry Wood and Mark Prior?
Before I get to commentary on the Jorge Soler signing, I wanted to mention that I read that Mark Prior (yes, that Mark Prior) has a 0.00 ERA and 10 Ks in 4.2 innings in three relief appearances with the Red Sox’s Triple A affiliate. Hopefully, the 31 year old Prior can make some sort of come back to the major leagues after injuries ruined what could have been an absolutely brilliant career. I, for one, am very much pulling for Mark to make it back.
Now, on to Jorge Soler…
First, some details have emerged from several sources on the 9 year/ $30 Million contract for Soler. It does appear that Soler will have the opportunity to go to arbitration when eligible. That can significantly change the number of dollars in the deal, as it could have been an absolute freaking steal if it were a straight $30 million, without arbitration eligibility. As it is, it appears that it will still be a good deal, because the way for Soler to make more money in arbitration is to produce on the field.
As far as scouting reports go, when I write one, it is typically a combination of what I have seen, read, and whatever metrics are available for the player. For Soler, that is a bit more difficult. I know he is 6’3″ and is somewhere between 200 and 225 pounds, and is said to be a prototype RF.
He is also said to have plus power, but does not get great loft on his swing. That could be to his benefit at Wrigley Field, where a line drive is about the only way to hit the ball out during the first two months of the season. If he can keep the ball on a line, both to pull side and opposite field, he could be a source of early season power for the Cubs if/ when he arrives with the big league squad.
Defensively, he is said to have a quick release on his throw, and good range. Defense is allegedly not in question at all, and he will not be a liability out in right for the Cubs.
The Words “Five Tool” don’t often get tossed around on players, but it has been applied liberally to Soler. If that is true, and he brings his considerable talent to Wrigley, this could be just the impact splash Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer, and Tom Ricketts were looking to make to really fix the team from the ground up. Ultimately, I don’t know much about Soler, but the things we’re all hearing make this a pretty good signing for the Cubs. Money isn’t too big, and if he pans out, his could be one of the hallmark contracts that highlight the new regime’s time in Chicago. That said, he is probably headed to A ball, and will not be a Chicago Cub until 2014, at the earliest. At that point, he could either be the RF to finally replace the offense from Sammy Sosa…or he could be the reincarnation of Jacque Jones.
There are a lot of players with the Cubs getting a lot of attention lately, most of it because they are the names surfacing in trade speculation. Of all of those players, the one that has gotten the most press is Matt Garza, hands
down. What makes him so interesting, and so valuable, is his age, his experience, and his pure stuff. The last pitcher the Cubs have had that has as much talent as Garza is Mark Prior.
Weight: 215 lbs
Drafted: 2005 First Round by the Minnesota Twins
Debut: August 11, 2006 vs Toronto Blue Jays (2.2 IP, 8 hits, 7 runs, 7 ER, 2 K, 2 BB)
Cubs’ Statistical Analysis:
In 39 starts with the Cubs, Garza is an even 12-12. He has pitched much better than his numbers indicate, with a 3.72 ERA this season. That includes his seven run debacle on Monday night in Houston. Before that, his ER A was in the 2.50 range. He had been down right dominant until his last start, with his worst starts coming immediately after returning from illness. For the season, he has given up 2 or fewer earned runs in six of his eight starts. He averages 3.0 BB/ 9 IP during his time with the Cubs, which is strong in comparison to the rest of the staff. His 14 home runs allowed last season were the lowest of any full season in the majors for Garza, who acclimated himself well to the National League. After a stint on the disabled list last season, Matt Garza was arguably one of the best pitchers in the National League during the second half of last season, when he gave up only 50 earned runs in his last 22 starts, spanning 139.1 innings, and anchored a resurgent Cubs’ pitching staff after the injuries to himself, Randy Wells, and Andrew Cashner, and the late season suspension of Carlos Zambrano. The important things to note about Garza’s numbers are that he leaves the Cubs in position to win just about every time he takes the mound. His record is far less indicative of how good he’s been than the way he leaves the game, which is typically with a lead or very close to it.
My player comparison for Matt Garza is the other big name pitcher that came to our division last winter…Brewers’ pitcher Zack Greinke. I do this because they are basically the same age and made the same transition from the American League to the National League’s Central Division a little over a year ago. In his 37 starts, Greinke is 21-7, which goes to show what being on a significantly better team will do for a win-loss record. Garza has pitched 18 more innings in his two extra starts, given up one fewer home run, and his ERA since the start of 2011 is 0.15 less than Greinke, which is a statistical push. In 2011, Garza’s ERA was about one half of a run lower than Greinke and he gave up 5 fewer home runs in 28 more innings, and his home and road record and statistics have less variation than Greinke. Aside from those numbers, Greinke and Garza have been nearly identical, which makes this comparison fair. The other thing that makes this fair is that Greinke is also rumored to be trade bait this summer. My very amateur analysis is that Garza will be more valuable. He has another full season of control after the season, and the road numbers for Greinke cannot be ignored. He is simply not the same pitcher outside of Miller Park since the beginning of 2011. (A different measure of fairness would be comparing Garza to Shaun Marcum, who came from the AL East with Garza last winter. While Garza has been overall better than Marcum, Marcum has been outstanding away from Miller Park and is another pitcher that could be on the block this summer.)
The BIG Question:
Will the Chicago Cubs trade Matt Garza and begin to restock a less than over-whelming farm system or extend the contract that is due to run out after the 2014 season?
To Be Determined. Sorry. That’s all you get. Actually, that’s the answer for basically everyone, but for different reasons. What we have learned about Jed Hoyer and Theo Epstein to this point is that nobody is off limits, especially if Starlin Castro’s name is being floated in trade rumors. For Garza, I would expect the Cubs to keep him around and build a rotation around him with guys like Jeff Samardzija, who is another power righty, and some left handed starters like (but not necessarily, beyond this season and next) Paul Maholm, who can capably fill the back end of a rotation, and other free agent additions in the coming years. Garza is set to become the undisputed ace of the staff with the likely departure of Ryan Dempster, either via trade or free agency at season’s end. At 28, Epstein has said he is the kind of pitcher to build a staff around. That can mean one of two things…either Epstein was being totally honest, or he was trying to inflate Garza’s price tag for potential trade suitors. With the speculation that extension talks have started, I would guess the former holds some weight. It’s just too soon to rule out the latter.