Gauging the White Sox chances in the Tanaka sweepstakes

Gauging the White Sox chances in the Tanaka sweepstakes
January 15, 2014, 4:15 pm
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Can the White Sox afford to sign Japanese pitcher Masahiro Tanaka?

Perhaps.

Will they?

Probably not.

As the Tanaka sweepstakes heats up — the deadline for teams to complete a deal is 4 p.m. on Jan. 24 — it is conceivable the White Sox could sign the right-hander, who is expected to receive a nine-figure contract.

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With raises accounted for, the White Sox appear to be in line for a payroll between $85-88 million for 2014. Last season, the team had an opening day payroll of $111 million. But there’s little likelihood they match last season’s payroll in 2014.

Consider two factors: the team will spend more on signing bonuses in 2014 and earned less money at the gate in 2013.

Last season, the White Sox spent roughly $7 million on signing bonuses for amateur and international talent. This season, they’re expected to drop nearly $15 million on bonuses. Also, on the way to 99 losses in 2013, attendance dropped at U.S. Cellular Field for a seventh straight season as 1.768 million fans passed through the turnstiles.

While general manager Rick Hahn won’t divulge his payroll budget for bargaining purposes, he has said payroll for 2014 would be a tick down because of signing bonuses.

But Hahn has also indicated the team has money to spend if it’s needed.

“In terms of the money there is more than enough to win,” Hahn said last month at the winter meetings. “We don’t feel any constraint by what we’re going to be spending. … There is absolutely the potential, whether it’s July or the next offseason, to make that additional long-term impactful signing and we’ll have the wherewithal to do that.”

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The White Sox have spent a good chunk of change already this offseason. Jose Abreu cost them $68 million, with an average annual contract value of just over $11 million. They also acquired relievers Scott Downs ($4 million) and Ronald Belisario ($3 million). Matt Lindstrom ($4 million), Paul Konerko ($2.5 million) and Dayan Viciedo ($2.8 million) have been retained and both Alejandro De Aza and Gordon Beckham are due a raise. Per MLBTraderumors.com, De Aza will earn close to $4.4 million and Beckham should earn up to $3.5 million.

Tanaka’s contract — not counting the $20 million posting fee — is expected to land in between $100 million and $150 million.

While the cost is significant and usually reserved for big-market clubs, Tanaka — who went 24-0 last season in Japan and is 99-35 overall with a 5:1 strikeout to walk ratio for his career — isn’t your typical free agent.

His pluses are more than just the talent he promises to bring.

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At 25, he’s younger than most free agents and has yet to enter his physical prime.

He also wouldn’t cost the team that signs him any draft picks.

In other words, he fits the White Sox need for a long-term building block just as Abreu does. Tanaka would also give the White Sox a bonafide No. 2 starter in the rotation behind Chris Sale for years to come.

“It’s going to be getting this thing right so that on an annual basis, we're in a position to contend for the postseason,” Hahn said about free agents in September. “If a free agent this year fits, a big name, high-priced free agent, it’s not just going to be for '14, it's going to be with a vision for the next several years thereafter as well.”

For the White Sox to land Tanaka — if he wants to play here — they clearly would have to increase player payroll for 2014.

They also would have to take another risk on a foreign player acclimating to the major leagues just as they plan on with Abreu.

Whether or not they make two huge bets remains to be seen.