Any Nats action on Tanaka would be a stealth move

Since this is a gift-giving time of year, let’s stop for a moment to ponder the fate of Masahiro Tanaka, the Japanese pitcher who, as of Dec. 24, will be posted by the Rakuten Golden Eagles and is in line for a huge payday. Think the kind of haul you’d get when Mega Millions doesn’t have a winner for two or three months of drawings.

Now the 25-year-old right-hander isn’t going to be a millionaire immediately; he’ll have to wait until major league teams go through the newly designed posting system, where Rakuten posts, teams agree to pony up $20 million for the chance to negotiate with Tanaka and agent Casey Close, and the player decides where he wants to play based on the offers he’s received.

But that’s one heck of a windfall. Certainly beats, say, a Pepto-pink bunny onesie, doesn’t it Ralphie?

I don’t know about you, but I think this is a better system than the old way, where a major league team put in a secret, sealed bid and the team bidding the most won a 30-day exclusive negotiating window - and then had to pay money on top of the bid to sign the player. If the team and player came to an agreement, the originating Japanese club got the posting fee, assuming it was deemed high enough; if not, the posting fee remained with the major league team and the player returned to his originating club.

Now all teams who want to get in on a Japanese-born player are on a more level playing field - so long as they’re willing to pay $20 million for the chance to try and sign him. It’s much fairer for the player. If a player wants to focus on West Coast teams, or has his heart set on playing in New York, he doesn’t have to roll the dice and pray that the team he wants wins the blind bidding process. The players like it, more major league teams can get involved in the process. So it’s the proverbial win-win.

Back at the end of the 2011 Winter Meetings in Dallas, just as news broke that Yu Darvish would be posted, Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo was swarmed by Japanese reporters and cameras. The Rule 5 Draft had ended and Rizzo, a scout-turned-executive who had watched Darvish pitch, was considered one of the favorites to enter the bidding. The Nationals wanted to upgrade their rotation, Darvish was a catch and a match seemingly existed.

Not that you’d have known how interested the Nats were - or, as it turned out, weren’t - by what Rizzo said to the throng that gathered around him. Here are the highlights from Rizzo’s group interview that morning:

* “Strategically, it doesn’t benefit us to announce if we’re going to bid or not on him. We’ve scouted him, we like him. We recognize his ability levels.”

* “I think he’s got a complete package. He’s a physical guy with stuff and knows how to pitch and has had success at a substantially high level of competition.”

* “I think you have to first approximate what your tolerance threshold is on what you would pay him in total, with the posting fee and with a major league contract. I think you have to strategically put together a plan to a) get the player in the post and b) see if you can get the player in the post, pay the posting fee and then sign the player to a major league contract.”

Cagey one, that Rizzo. Appeared interested, but not too interested. Enough to fan the flames and get people thinking the Nats might be in on Darvish. Maybe enough to make another executive on another club pay more than he wanted, which could benefit Rizzo and the Nats somewhere down the line.

Major league teams had until Dec. 14, 2011 to bid on Darvish, and the Nippon-Ham Fighters announced Dec. 19 that they would accept the bid of the Rangers, who would shell out $51.7 million in order to sign Darvish to a six-year, $60 million contract. Six years of Darvish cost the Rangers $111.7 million. The Nationals, as it turned out, passed on bidding, preferring instead to focus on allocating their monies to their major league roster and their farm system.

Which brings us to the Dec. 24 announcement that Tanaka would be posted under the new system’s first go-around. No one is mentioning the Nats this time around. The Yankees, Dodgers, Diamondbacks, Cubs and Mariners are among the teams being rumored to be willing to commit $20 million for the right to talk turkey with Tanaka. Circle Jan. 24 on your calendar, because that’s the deadline for bidding. Shortly after that, some team will be put on the clock, hoping to sign, seal and deliver Tanaka in time for spring training. Japanese pitchers are notorious creatures of habit, which makes me wonder how Tanaka will react to being all packed for a trip to the U.S., but not knowing exactly where he was going to go.

Why wouldn’t the Nats be interested? Oh, they are - every major league club is, particularly one with the deep pockets of the Lerner family’s ownership. But Rizzo wants to build from within: Draft and develop players, dealing them to another organization only if they help him fill some need that exists. Tanaka is believed to be better than any of the pitchers who were on the free agent market this winter, and with guys like Ervin Santana, Matt Garza and Ubaldo Jiminez still unsigned with December about to turn into January, it’ll be interesting to see how the next few weeks shake out. Agents hate to have big-name free agents unsigned in late January, but this offseason they may think it more advantageous to let Tanaka make a decision, then maximize their clients’ possibilities with teams that don’t land the prized import.

The Nationals? They’ll likely sit on the sidelines and let other teams duke it out. Unless Rizzo decides that Tanaka is worth $20 million for a few chats, and does something unexpected. That would be a total stealth move, just the kind of under-the-radar action Rizzo seems to prefer. Remember, no one saw Doug Fister coming, certainly not for the three-player package it took to get him from the Tigers.

This time around, the Nationals are much more settled, a club constructed to contend with few holes to fill entering the offseason. They don’t need to make a splash or scream, “Look at us!” by being an unexpected participant in the bidding process. That doesn’t mean Rizzo might not do something unexpected, only that the landscape is different, and that inaction on Tanaka might speak just as loudly as a bold, decisive stroke.

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