Heading into the holidays, the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagle's deliberations over whether or not to post Masahiro Tanaka appeared to be holding up the rest of the free agent market. The Japanese team ultimately posted the 25-year-old ace on Christmas Day, opening the door for major league teams to begin negotiating with Tanaka and his newly-appointed American agent, Casey Close. That was two weeks ago, and things are still moving at a glacial pace. Here, then, are updates on some of the top remaining free agents, none of whom are generating much heat on the rumor mill.
RHP Masahiro Tanaka
The Tanaka situation is reminiscent of Catfish Hunter's after the 1974 season, when the A's ace was declared a free agent due to Oakland owner Charlie O. Finley's breach of contract. That was two years before true free agency came to the major leagues, and 22 of the then-24 teams made a run at signing Hunter, who was coming off four straight 20-win seasons and the 1974 American League Cy Young award. Thirteen clubs, more than half of the majors, offered him a five-year contract worth $2 million or more at a time when the highest paid player in the game made $250,000 a year and signing a player for two years was a rare and significant commitment.
Tanaka was every bit the dominant ace in Japan that Hunter was with the A's in the early 1970s. Thanks to the changes in the posting system, Tanaka is the first Japanese player in the post-Hideo Nomo-era to be able to negotiate with multiple major league teams in advance of his official free agency (which in Nippon Professional Baseball doesn't come until after a player has accumulated nine years of service time). Tanaka's ultimate contract won't be as wildly out of line with the rest of the major leagues as was the five-year, $3.5 million deal Hunter ultimately agreed to with the Yankees, but the level of interest in his services is similar.
As a result, it could take a while for leaders to emerge in the Tanaka sweepstakes. It's been two weeks since his posting, and there are no hot leads or rumored leaders. The Diamondbacks and Yankees have explicitly listed Tanaka among their top priorities this offseason, and the Cubs are expected to be heavily involved as well.
One other team that keeps coming up is the Mariners, who have not followed their Robinson Cano signing with another impact move, and there is some debate as to how much money they could spend. Fox Sports' Ken Rosenthal wrote back on Dec. 19 that Seattle might be close to its payroll limit. However, Baseball America's Ben Badler, assessing the market for Tanaka last week, noted the Mariners' new $2 billion regional television contract and their lack of long term commitments other than those to Cano and ace Felix Hernandez. General manager Jack Zduriencik told Rosenthal last month that, "if we go for another large deal, that obviously is going to have to go above my head," meaning he would need ownership approval for another significant contract.
Still, there's a sense around the game that Seattle does have one more significant move to come, be it signing Tanaka, trading for David Price or further cluttering the left side of their defensive spectrum with a draft-robbing deal for Nelson Cruz.
Santana, Jimenez and Garza are the big three domestic free agents whose markets are being held up by the Tanaka sweepstakes, and news has been extremely slow on them as a result. The teams that get the furthest with Tanaka only to lose him are likely to turn to those three, and the Blue Jays specifically are considered likely to make a move to sign one of them after Tanaka lands elsewhere. Otherwise, there's not much to report here. The Twins have expressed interest in bringing back Garza, their first-round draft pick from 2005, but they're reportedly unwilling to offer the sort of long-term contract he desires.
SS Stephen Drew
Per the New York Daily News' Andy Martino, "the Red Sox and Mets are the only clubs known to be engaged with Drew." However, the Mets don't want to offer Drew a contract lasting more than a year or two, which would seem to increase his chances of re-signing with Boston, which has a well-established interest in bringing him back. Such a move would push rookie Xander Bogaerts to third base and Will Middlebrooks to the bench, the minors or off the team completely via a trade. Having declined the Red Sox' qualifying offer, Drew doesn't seem likely to settle for a one-year deal, and he does come with the added price of draft pick compensation. The Mets' first-round pick is protected, but they would give up their second-round pick if they signed Drew, whereas Boston would not have to give up a pick to re-sign the shortstop.
OF Nelson Cruz
The Rangers, who, along with their fans, embraced Cruz after his return from his Biogenesis suspension, seemed likely to bringing him back until they dropped $130 million on Shin-Soo Choo. The Rockies and Orioles reached out to Cruz's agent in early December, and the Mariners continue to be considered a part of his market with the caveats discussed above. Even with all that, there has been precious little heat on Cruz. He may come to regret turning down Texas' qualifying offer in November as there just aren't a lot of teams out there looking to forfeit their top draft pick to sign an oft-injured 33-year-old designated hitter with a recent performance-enhancing drug suspension who has posted a .319 on-base percentage over the last three seasons.