Diamondbacks have a yen for Tanaka, but will it be money well spent?

In just over two days, Japanese pitching phenom Masahiro Tanaka must make his decision about signing with a major league baseball team for the coming years. As has been widely reported, the Diamondbacks are in the mix for Tanaka’s services, along with the Yankees, Dodgers, Cubs and White Sox. Imagine that, the budget-strapped D-Backs competing with the evil empire in New York, the new evil empire in LA, and the two teams located in Chicago, the third largest market in the entire country?

The D-Backs offer to Tanaka is one to be taken seriously, a six-year deal approaching a total value of 12 billion yen, or $120 million in US dollars. It must be noted that any team that signs Tanaka would have to pay an additional $20 million release fee to his current team in Japan. Spread out over the life of the proposed contract, that puts the D-Back offer at an effective cost of approximately $23 million per season.

As fans, it is technically not our money that is being spent so why would we care about how much money the team commits to Tanaka? True, future ticket prices will be tied to the team’s payroll, but those prices are going to increase, regardless of whether Tanaka is signed by the team. When the prices go up, it won’t matter whether the excuse is that the team needs money to cover Tanaka’s contract or that the team needs more revenues to sign the next big thing.

The factor worthy of our attention is whether signing Tanaka will restrict the team from having money to spend on its returning players or future free agents. Toward that end, we must bear in mind that the structure of current deals, including the latest trades for Mark Trumbo and Addison Reed as well as the five-year deal made with superstar Paul Goldschmidt, actually minimize the team’s exposure to the free agent contract frenzy for the next three to four seasons.

If Tanaka’s signing is the final ingredient for the rebuilding process, I say “go for it.” But I think some perspective is called for in making this decision. First, the largest total contact entered into by the D-Backs was the five-year, $60 million deal with Miguel Montero before the start of last season. Tanaka’s deal would more than double the heftiest contract in the team’s history. The D-Back brass will need to at least take a moment to reflect on that before it makes its final offer.

Second, we need to assess where this deal would place Tanaka on the list of starting pitcher salaries. In 2013, Cliff Lee was the highest paid pitcher, receiving $25 million for the season. He was followed closely by Johan Santana at $24.5 million, CC Sabathia at $23 million, Tim Lincecum at $22.25 million and Zach Greinke at $21 million. Tanaka’s deal would place him just behind these players, and he would be paid comparable dollars to past Cy Young Award winner Justin Verlander. Is this money well spent on an unproven commodity?

On the upside, it is important to note that Tanaka is just 25 years old. A six-year deal with the D-Backs would lock him in for the most productive years of a pitcher. Also, with Clayton Kershaw’s recent mammoth contract in LA (approximately $40 million per season), it is clear that the annual salary for a top notch starting pitcher will be increasing to a point where a $20 million per season average will eventually look like a bargain.

History tells us that I am right about this. In 1979, Nolan Ryan became baseball’s highest paid pitcher, with an average annual salary of $1.17 million playing for the Houston Astros. Ten years later, Orel Hersheiser signed a deal with the Dodgers, earning him an average of over $2.6 million per season. The numbers skyrocketed thereafter, with Roger Clemens securing an annual average salary of $5.38 million in 1991 with the Red Sox. By 1997, newest member of the Hall of Fame Greg Maddux signed a deal that would pay him an average of $11.5 million per year. Just three years later, Roger Clemens topped this list again when he signed with the Yankees for over $15.4 million per season. Using this progression as a reference, Tanaka’s proposed D-Back deal at $20 million per season is good planning for the future, assuming he reaches the potential that scouts suggest they see in him.

In the end, it is likely that the rich will get richer, and Tanaka will sign with the Yankees, Cubs or Dodgers. Until then, it is nice to know that a team from Phoenix is at least in the discussion.