This week, the New York Yankees made the biggest splash in this year’s MLB offseason by landing Japanese professional baseball sensation Masahiro Tanaka. Even though Tanaka is not a household name like Justin Verlander or Clayton Kershaw, he received superstar money signing in a whopping $155 million, seven-year deal with the Yankees. Money is not usually an issue for Yankees, but anytime you offer a pitcher a seven-year deal worth that much; especially one who has never pitched a single game in the majors, it is definitely a risk. Even so, this is exactly what Yankees fans wanted. Not only did the Yankees receive the best pitcher on the market, they got a pitcher who, at only 25 years old has the potential to take over as the next future of the franchise. By signing Tanaka, the Yankees killed two birds with one big stone: they immediately improved their rotation, and therefore their title chances, while also adding much needed youth to the oldest team in the majors.
The Tanaka hype has been building over the past several years while playing in Japan for the Rakuten Golden Eagles as well as the national team in the World Baseball Classic.This past season, Tanaka’s stock skyrocketed as he posted one of the most ridiculous statistical seasons a pitcher could have at any level. He ended the regular season with a 24-0 record and a 1.27 ERA, tops in Japan. He became only the second Japanese pitcher to ever go undefeated and also received the league’s MVP as well as its equivalent Cy Young Award. Tanaka also carried his team to a championship. For a pitcher, it’s hard to get much better than that. Tanaka was just about perfect in every sense of the word, making him the most desirable pitcher available in free agency. With the pick of the litter, Tanaka opted for the Yanks, the team that he claimed “gave me the highest evaluation and are a world-famous team.”
So were the Yankees the right choice for Tanaka? Yes. In fact, I believe this is a match made in heaven for both sides. Clearly, money and commitment were there. Spearheaded by GM Brian Cashman and backed by the wallet of owner Hal Steinbrenner, Tanaka was guaranteed more money than any other of the bidders could offer, besides the Los Angeles Dodgers. Digging deeper than just the contractual incentive, Tanaka attributes his decision to the historic allure of the Yankees franchise and the brand name it carries with it. The Yankees have also embraced fellow countrymen like Hideki Matsui, who was signed by the Yanks in 2003 in a similar situation. Couple that with the resigningation of hometown heroes Ichiro Suzuki and Hiroki Kuroda, Tanaka’s decision was rather easy.
But the real question is, will Tanaka be worth the investment for the Yankees? Based on his success and video game-like statistics in Japan, it seems like a no-brainer. This guy throws five pitches including a fastball that tops out at 97 mph, a high 80 mph splitter with late downward action and a plus slider. He has the stuff, there is no denying that. Some red flags should be raised when signing a starting pitcher to such a long-term contract because of the possibility of injury. Even though Tanaka is only 25 and just entering his prime, he’s already thrown a ton of pitches in Japan. Tanaka has not only played professionally since he was 18, he’s started 172 games including 53 complete games. Simply put, that’s a lot of pitches and, as a result, a lot of wear on that young precious arm.This is obviously not something to look too closely into as every pitcher goes through the wear and tear of an MLB
season, but when you’re investing that much money over that many years, it does raise some flags.
So what’s it going to be? Will Tanaka burn out like the once highly regarded
Japanese star Daisuke Matsuzaka? Or will he overtake Yu Darvish’s claim as the best Japanese pitcher in the world? The Yankees will keep their fingers crossed for the latter.
Contact Kevin Mahoney at [email protected]