CUT THE CHECK—MLB Signings Report & Recap: Masahiro Tanaka Edition

Posted: January 22, 2014 by The Cheap Seat Fan in MLB
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The great drama of the last few months has been when, where and who would land Masahiro Tanaka. The Japanese pitcher, who’s reputation has taken on an urban legend like feel, stood among the most widely courted players of recent memory, with list of who wouldn’t have interest coming in at much shorter count than who actually would.

In the end, the Dodgers, Cubs, White Sox and Diamondbacks all emerged as the top courters for the talented young righty, and with the game’s biggest spenders in the pool, how high the waves could go to secure his services seemed unlimited. However, this morning it became clear that the long-standing desire of the New York Yankees to cap their offseason by adding the top arm available had come true. The Steinbrenners and GM Brian Cashman closed the deal with one of the wealthiest contracts in club history to lock down his services, and in the course, round out an offseason rebuilding spree that will see the club spend $491 million dollars by all of its contracts have run its course.

The after effects of the deal will do more than just effect the outcome of the Yankees offseason; it will also end the holding pattern for the rest of the top starting pitching class of the year. Matt Garza, Ubaldo Jimenez and Ervin Santana have all sat deathly still this winter while teams have positioned themselves for a shot at Tanaka. And now with him off the market, it shouldn’t take long for them to begin to stir up interest as the club’s that missed out decide whether they still need to add a starter, or if the pursuit of Tanaka was simply spending for the exception.

Yet, while the matter of his destination is settled, now there is the matter of looking ahead at what it all means: for the Yankees, for Tanaka and for the parties that missed the boat as well.

(Rankings are from the initial Top 75 Free Agent list—abridged ranking for Tanaka once he was officially available rose to #4.)

12. Masahiro Tanaka—Starting Pitcher—25 Years Old—2013 Team: Rakuten Golden Eagles

Signed: New York Yankees—Seven Years, $155 million

For all of their revamping of their everyday lineup, the Yankee front five remained painfully thin. They felt that Tanaka was the best option to address that issue, and paid him in a fashion that reflects it. His deal is the second largest free agent contract in club history, after CC Sabathia’s 2009 pact. The deal makes him the the fifth highest paid pitcher in baseball after Clayton Kershaw, Justin Verlander, Sabathia and Felix Hernandez. Counting the $20 million dollar posting fee required, the team will sink $175 million into an arm that has never thrown an MLB inning.

By and large, they are paying for potential, name value and proven reputation. In seven seasons in the Japanese Pacific League, starting when he was 18, Tanaka won 73% of his 175 starts, and left his home nation hot on the heels of a mind-blowing 2013 where his record stood at 24-0, with a 1.27 ERA across 212 innings, striking out 183 and surrendering only 6 home runs.

Tanaka’s style is an aggressive mix of mid-90’s fastball, which he offsets with a breakneck splitter. To get a perspective on his approach/”stuff”, he is the middle ground between Yu Darvish‘s velocity and Hisashi Iwamura’s splitter. Unlike his Pacific League predecessor and current AL strikeout king Darvish, he does not profile to run up huge numbers in the K column. He only had one season where he eclipsed 200 strikeouts in Japan, which can be a worry point in issuing such a massive contract to player that hasn’t been completely overwhelming with his fastball against a lower level of competition.

However, the high point about Tanaka is that in theory, he could strikeout more as he continues to develop a more diverse off speed offering. At his relatively young age, he is carrying a high amount of experienced professional innings (1,315, including 53 complete games), which can be a point of concern from a durability standpoint, but also shows he is ready to compete while adapting to MLB hitters and working with Yankee pitching instruction.

His role on the team is currently to be an axis in the middle of the rotation, but to eventually succeed Hiroki Kuroda as the team’s #2—as soon as next year.

For the teams that missed out, the Dodgers obviously stand to be effected the least. The addition of Tanaka was more or less a power play to round out a superstar rotation over a needed pickup. With a selection of Chad Billingsley and Josh Beckett as their fifth starter, they will be fine. The Diamondbacks needed to get a top gun for their rotation, but they are solid as is. It is a tougher loss for the White Sox and Cubs, who both are in the middle of rebuilding efforts and having young, top flight potential arms is the quickest road to respectability.

As for the team, the Yankees made a necessary statement in signing Tanaka, one that says they are bent on returning the postseason, are not afraid to put the money up to do against the seemingly irresistible Dodger bankroll to succeed. It is a major risk, and the type that could be crippling going ahead if his clearly dynamic tools don’t translate into the expected elite level of results. However, if he provides nothing more than a regularly competitive, plus level arm in the vein of a Cole Hamels or Zack Greinke type, the Yankees can count themselves as the winners of the winter of 2013 down the road—if not immediately.

 

For more on this deal and the reaction to it, follow me on Twitter at @CheapSeatFan.

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