The New York Yankees and Masahiro Tanaka have agreed to a seven-year, $155 million contract.
The Bronx is rejoicing, and with good reason. Tanaka went 24-0 in Nippon Professional Baseball last year with a 1.27 ERA, 0.943 WHIP and 183 strikeouts in 212 innings pitched. Simply put, he’s filthy. He’s touted to have one of the best splitters in the world — which is good because he’ll need it with the Little League dimensions of Yankee Stadium.
As good as Tanaka has been, this signing is different than the other blockbuster additions the Yankees have made this offseason. Whereas the others exemplified the Yankees’ typical practice of overspending for an upgrade, the Tanaka contract is more an act of desperation.
Take Jacoby Ellsbury, for instance. The Yankees already had a solid center fielder/leadoff man/base stealer in Brett Gardner. But Ellsbury was available so they signed him to the third-largest contract ever given to an outfielder. Thus, they upgraded in center field and moved Gardner to left.
As for right field, the Yankees had Alfonso Soriano, Vernon Wells and Ichiro Suzuki. But Carlos Beltran was a free agent so they gave the 37-year-old a three-year, $45 million deal.
Brian McCann was probably the most-needed addition to the team and clearly the greatest upgrade at his position. Still, there were other options available to New York at catcher (e.g. Dioner Navaroo, A.J. Pierzynski). McCann was clearly the best, however, so the Yankees flexed their financial muscle to bring the Georgia boy up north.
The greatest difference between these three players and Tanaka is that they’re all experienced veterans, proven performers in Major League Baseball. Tanaka is not.
The Japanese ace may ultimately be worth the investment, but that doesn’t change the fact that the Yankees just gave the largest free agent contract to a right-handed pitcher and the second-largest in history to a player who has never thrown a single pitch off Major League mound. The reason? They had to do it.
The Yankees’ starting pitching was in tatters by the end of last year. C.C. Sabathia had the worst season of his career, Hiroki Kuroda lost seven of his final eight decisions and Ivan Nova showed flashes of brilliance but was inconsistent. The addition of McCann will likely be a huge help to Sabathia and Kuroda as they attempt to bounce back and to Nova as he tries to make the jump from good to elite. But Tanaka could do even more in reviving the rotation.
The Yankees knew what they’d be getting if they had to settle for a mid-level arm like Ervin Santana, Ubaldo Jimenez or Matt Garza. Though Tanaka could ultimately become the same kind of pitcher, the Yankees had to bet on his potential to become elite.
Tanaka will likely be the No. 2 starter in New York’s starting rotation. If he lives up to expectations, however, the Japanese ace could soon become an American ace. It’s a gamble the Yankees had to take.