December 27, 2013 at 1:57 pm

Tony Paul

With Michigan's Casey Close as agent, Masahiro Tanaka appears Yankees-bound

The Yankees probably need Masahiro Tanaka more than most teams bidding for his services. (Getty Images)

Detroit — Let the bidding begin.

Or, actually, let the negotiating begin.

Several teams in the coming days, including potentially even the Tigers, are expected to meet the maximum bid of $20 million for the right to talk contract with free-agent right-hander Masahiro Tanaka from Japan.

In years past, only the richest of rich teams would seriously be in the mix — because there was no ceiling on the posting bid, payable to a Japanese player’s team, in this case the Rakuten Golden Eagles. But with Major League Baseball axing the no-limit ways, and installing the $20 million limit, many more teams are expected to be in contention for his services.

That rule change was met with disgust from the folks in Japan, and glee around MLB. But it sure is sensible when you consider the Red Sox were out $52.1 million before they even signed Daisuke Matsuzaka — for another $52 million. Later, the Rangers paid a $51.7 million posting fee before inking Yu Darvish — for another $60 million.

The old system was foolish. The new system is fascinating.

Starting Wednesday, when Rakuten reversed course and decided to let Tanaka follow his dream of playing in the States, major-league teams have a 30-day window to meet the posting bid and sign the 25-year-old. Under the old system, teams would submit secret bids — with only the highest being allowed to negotiate with the free agent. Now that the starting bid is the maximum, many teams will meet that, and so it’ll be Tanaka’s decision where he wants to play. What a concept.

The odds-on favorite to land him are the Yankees, who have the financial flexibility with Alex Rodriguez’s season-plus suspension almost certain to be upheld by an arbitrater in the coming days, thus saving the Bombers at least $30 million-plus, and maybe more.

Michigan connection

Tanaka, interestingly, might’ve tipped his hand Wednesday when he announced Casey Close would be his agent. Close, a University of Michigan alumnus, has built his empire around representing good pal and Yankees legend Derek Jeter.

The Yankees also probably need Tanaka more than most. They’ve had an interesting offseason, adding the likes of Brian McCann, Carlos Beltran and Jacoby Ellsbury, but they’ve also lost Robinson Cano to the Mariners, plus Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera to retirement. They’ve also not addressed a rotation that, outside CC Sabathia, is really pretty awful.

With Tanaka, the Yankees could be a serious player; without him, though, they’re almost assuredly headed for a second consecutive missed postseason, something that hasn’t happened since 1992-93.

The motivation to land Tanaka is off the charts for another reason. For teams that miss out on him, the consolation prize could be Ervin Santana, a right-hander who had a great year for the Royals in 2013, but obviously is no legitimate ace — even though he'll be paid like one. And the outlook for 2015 free agency is pretty poor, too, especially if Clayton Kershaw and Jon Lester sign long-term extensions, respectively, with the Dodgers and Red Sox, as is expected.

The Yankees also have few trade chips to fix their rotation mess, so this is their time. They know it. Everybody knows it. And it's setting up perfectly.

Other players abound

The Rangers would love to have a Tanaka and Darvish duo, but they just spent $130 million to land their big fish, outfielder Shin-Soo Choo. The Mariners might keep going after handing Cano $240 million, but they're better suited to make a trade, perhaps for David Price. The Mets have piqued the interest of their fan base in signing former Tiger Curtis Granderson and could get back on the back page of the tabloids with a Tanaka splash. The Red Sox, Dodgers and Angels could be in play, as well.

Many more teams than that will secure negotiating rights, including several small-market clubs. It would be no stretch to see more than half of the 30 teams meet the $20 million posting fee, including the Tigers. While surely a long shot to land Tanaka, GM Dave Dombrowski is facing the reality Max Scherzer likely will leave after 2014. And it certainly doesn’t hurt to talk to Tanaka and Close. It costs nada, after all. They’re only out the $20 million if they, indeed, sign Tanaka. Again, though, that would be a shocker, given the Tigers clearly are entering a new era of fiscal restraint, whether they admit it or not.

The Yankees aren’t spending like they used to, either. But this is one big-ticket item they know they have to have, and they’ve planned appropriately.

His contract cost figures to be super steep — well more than Matsuzaka or Darvish got, since the clubs no longer have to take into account the out-of-this-world posting fee. It would surprise nobody if Tanaka signs for between $80 million and $100 million.

With a plus fastball and excellent split-finger, he boasts pinpoint command, rarely gives up home runs, and goes deep into games. And he is coming off a historic season, in which he was 24-0 with a 1.27 earned-run average and 183 strikeouts in 212 innings during the regular season. For his career in the Japan Pacific League, he is 99-35 with a 2.30 ERA and 1.108 WHIP in seven mostly spectacular seasons. He hasn’t had an ERA over 2.50 since 2008.

tpaul@detroitnews.com
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