Kensuke Tanaka was, until recently, the starting second baseman and team captain of the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters. In November, though, he opted out of the final year of his contract so he could pursue his wish of playing in Major League Baseball.
"I started thinking about the majors about four years ago and little by little, my feeling to go grew stronger", he said in a press conference. "Playing in a new environment can become a plus for a baseball player…I would like to play baseball in a new place while coming into contact with all kinds of cultures."
The 31-year-old lefty appeared in 114 games in 2012. He suffered a fracture in his left elbow and ruptured his UCL in in a game against the Seibu Lions in late August when he collided with shortstop Hiroyuki Nakajima. Nakajima, who recently signed with the Athletics, laid down a bunt, and when Tanaka ran over to first to cover the base, the two hit each other. Tanaka had surgery in early September and is currently rehabbing from the injury, which medical experts believe will only take two to three months.
In 2011, he appeared in only 49 games because of a fracture in the talus bone of his left foot, an injury he sustained after sliding into second base during a game in mid-June against the Hiroshima Toyo Carp. He had been planning to exercise his international free agent eligibility at the end of the 2011 season, but the injury limited his service time and he missed the required nine years of service by four days. Nippon Ham waived the lack of service, but Tanaka chose to stay with the team for one more year to show his gratitude and to put up better numbers and increase the chances that an MLB team would want to sign him.
His stats over the last five years are as follows:
Tanaka is a career .286/.356/.384 hitter. His average could stand to be higher, but he is no stranger to sacrifice plays, hit-and-runs, and other plays that would artificially depress his average lower than what it could be. In addition, his home stadium, the Sapporo Dome, is known for being one of Japan’s best pitchers' parks. Given the context, hitting a few shades under .300 is perfectly acceptable.
Tanaka possesses excellent plate awareness, and his high on-base percentage reflects that. In his own words, "I am not good at hitting home runs, and I have no power". He augments his lack of power with excellent defense at second base and a reputation for being a speed demon on the basepaths. He has won five Mitsui Golden Glove Awards — 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010 — and has been voted Best Nine, an honor given to the individual who is perceived as the best overall player at each individual position in both leagues, at second base four times — 2006, 2007, 2010, and 2012.
Does He Make Sense For The Mets?
Tanaka's two main strengths, defense and speed, are question marks. There is, of course, a long history of NPB infielders with a strong defensive reputation struggling in MLB, from Kaz Matsui to Tsuyoshi Nishioka. Tanaka might be the one to break the mold, but until he theoretically does, the struggles of past players must be taken into consideration.
Looking at his speed, it — or, at the very least, his stolen base attempts and his stolen base success percentage — has noticeably decreased since his shortened 2011 season, and the fracture he sustained that year might be the reason. The lack of success on the basepaths could also be an outlier, but until proven otherwise, like his defensive skill, it is a red flag that has to be kept in mind.
In terms of cost, it is unlikely that Kensuke Tanaka breaks the bank. It is believed by sources in Japan that Tanaka might be willing to accept a minor-league contract, on the basis that it will put him on track to play in the big leagues. He has said so much in veiled language, stating, "I would like to play for a team that can understand what I have done in order to help my team win…I want to know what I am capable of in a different environment. I want to study. I will play for any team that is willing to give me a chance… If I can perhaps show people that a player like me can make it in the world [it would please me]."
Most likely, he profiles as middle infielder depth in Triple-A and nothing particularly more. Daniel Murphy and Ruben Tejada are the incumbents at second base and shortstop, respectively, and Kensuke offers no upgrade over either player. In theory, he could be used as the team’s back-up middle infielder immediately out of spring training, but with Justin Turner and Jordany Valdespin already on the roster, bad things would presumably have to happen to them before Tanaka — older and unproven in America — is able to leapfrog them on the depth chart.
If Kensuke Tanaka was a year or two younger or was a bit more of an offensive-oriented player, he would be an intriguing international signing. He isn't, however, and of the things that he brings to the table, nothing particularly stands out as being so beneficial that it behooves the Mets to go out and offer him a contract.
A few weeks back, we began to took a look at the market for international free agents. For previous entries in this series, check out the storystream.