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White Sox in hot pursuit of pitcher Masahiro Tanaka

Updated: January 10, 2014 4:33PM



The White Sox’ offseason already has played to rave reviews.

“For the long run, they’ve made themselves better,’’ one major-league scout said.

But they may be saving the best act for last.

What if the Sox come from nowhere to land Masahiro Tanaka? What would that do for general manager Rick Hahn’s reputation?

Not to mention interest in what was an almost unwatchable team last summer. Or for the joy of elbowing out the Cubs, first thought to be a bigger player in the Tanaka sweepstakes?

The Sox have surprised before. Hahn was an unexpected winner for the best free-agent hitter this offseason, Cuban first baseman Jose Abreu. Abreu, almost 27, signed for $68 million over six years. On Thursday, Hahn, executive vice president Ken Williams and manager Robin Ventura met with Tanaka and his representatives, the first step toward making a run at the best free-agent pitcher, Tanaka, the 25-year-old sensation from Japan. Williams told the Sun-Times’ Michael Sneed on Wednesday that he had traveled to Los Angeles on important Sox business, presumably for Tanaka.

More teams, a dozen for sure, are competing this time, though, and Tanaka will likely receive at least $100 million.

That is a ton of money for a pitcher, but the Sox wouldn’t feel strapped after shedding plenty from last year’s payroll by trading Jake Peavy and Alex Rios and giving Paul Konerko a large pay cut. Tanaka, like Abreu, fits Hahn’s stated goal for sustained, long-term success because he’s young, and he wouldn’t cost a first-round draft pick. While the Sox have budgeted increased spending on the draft and international scouting and signings, there also is an extra $26 million in TV money coming every team’s way in shared revenue from MLB’s Central Fund.

After meeting with Tanaka, the Sox released a statement and said they would have no further comment on discussions until Tanaka makes a decision.

“The meeting was exploratory in nature,” Hahn said. “It was an opportunity for us to sit down with Masahiro and discuss how he potentially fits our vision ... for the next several seasons.”

While one major-league source with close ties to the Sox was skeptical Thursday about the Sox’ ability to out-bid big spenders such as the Dodgers and Yankees, another major-league source can envision chairman Jerry Reinsdorf — who has said there is room in the budget — spending the money.

“They have been very quiet, but that could be a sign,’’ the source said. “They played possum a bit on Abreu. They should be in on this guy if they really like him — they have the money available. But he makes sense for a ton of clubs, so money will be a big factor. Most everyone will throw an offer out there.’’

Tanaka, whose mastery of a split-finger fastball helped him compile a 24-0 record and 1.27 ERA in Japan last season, reportedly had meetings set with the Dodgers, Angels, Yankees, Diamondbacks, Cubs and Sox. The Blue Jays and Mariners, among others, are likely in play, too. The deadline to sign him is Jan. 24.

What isn’t known is whether Tanaka is willing to sign for less money to play for a team or city he prefers. Hahn’s shrewd and creative negotiating skills honed when he was assistant GM to Williams might come into play. What a boost Tanaka would give a rotation with All-Star Chris Sale, Jose Quintana, John Danks and Erik Johnson. That is, if Tanaka is as good as advertised.

“There’s lots of debate whether [Tanaka] or [Texas Rangers Japanese star] Yu Darvish is better,’’ a major-league scout said. “There’s no guarantee this guy is going to be legit long-term, but it’s guaranteed he will get paid.’’

It’s a risk the Sox — and many others — seem willing to take.

Email: dvanschouwen@suntimes.com

Twitter: @CST_soxvan



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