Masahiro Tanaka told reporters that he wants to pitch in the majors in 2014.
He made the announcement after an hour-long meeting with Yōzō Tachibana, president of his current team, the Rakuten Golden Eagles. Rakuten is a successful company, so it’s safe to say Mr. Tachibana had a plan going into that meeting. If the math says Rakuten has to keep Tanaka next year, and the star pitcher starts the meeting by saying he wants to go to MLB, Mr. Tachibana would have said something like: “Listen, I’m sorry but you’re staying. The money makes it impossible for us to post you. This new system screwed up everyone's plans. But we will double your salary. Since you have to stay, don’t hurt the team and the parent company by making us look like a dream-crushing corporation. Tell the press that due to the unexpected change in the posting system, we agreed you'll be posted after 2014.”
Now, I have no idea what Masahiro Tanaka is like in person. I can only guess based on watching his interviews, and I’m not sure that’s even worth doing. But I’ll say anyway that he seems like a standup guy. He seems like a guy whose top priority is being the best baseball player he can possibly be.
At that point in the conversation, he could either say to the president of his team, “Okay, I understand, let’s win another championship and I’ll go after the 2014 season” or he could say, “No, I want to go to MLB now, and if you don’t post me, fine, but I’m telling the media that I want to go.” If the former, Rakuten is relieved, but we know that’s not what happened because Tanaka was very clear that he wants to pitch in the U.S. in 2014.
If the latter, what does Rakuten do?
First, let me say that Masahiro Tanaka doesn’t seem like a guy who would hold the reputation of his team—the team that drafted him out of high school and the only professional team he's ever known—it’s just not likely he would hold Rakuten’s reputation ransom to try to pitch in the big leagues next year, when he’ll very likely achieve that goal in a year or two anyway.
But for the sake of completing this exercise in speculation, let’s say he did. Rakuten is then faced with potential PR damage from wronging the country’s biggest star athlete, a national hero who just completed a historic season featuring unprecedented individual statistics and a team championship that brought much goodwill and courage to a region hurting from a severe disaster. How many millions would that damage translate to? How much would it be worth to avoid that mess?
When Tanaka announced his desire to pitch in the majors, he exercised the leverage he had. His declaration was that big. I think Rakuten let him do it because his accomplishments this year were that amazing, and because it will be good PR. It will also be great for baseball.