Masahiro Tanaka is headed to the New York Yankees, who are once again spending money with the determination of years past.
Fox Sports is reporting that the prize of this winter’s free-agent class has agreed to terms on a seven-year, $155 million contract with the Yankees, the latest move in a winter of wild spending for the club.
Between outfielders Jacoby Ellsbury and Carlos Beltran, catcher Brian McCann and now Tanaka, the Yankees have expended $438 million in an effort to return to dominance.
That doesn’t include the $20 million posting fee the Yankees must pay to the Rakuten Golden Eagles, Tanaka’s team in Japan.
And though Tanaka has never thrown a pitch in the major leagues, the Yankees did not hesitate to offer him the fifth-largest contract ever for a pitcher.
Their agreement with Tanaka also comes less than two weeks after they had $25 million of 2014 payroll freed with 162 games of slugger Alex Rodriguez’s suspension upheld by an arbitrator.
And it also comes during a period in which the Yankees hoped to duck under Major League Baseball’s $189 million luxury tax threshold to avoid paying significant penalties.
Enter Tanaka, whose signing will effectively destroy those hopes.
The 25-year right-hander makes the move after the most remarkable pitching season in Japanese pro history — 24-0 with a 1.27 earned run average and Pacific League MVP for the Japan Series champion Rakuten Golden Eagles last season.
His overall numbers in Japan were comparable – even better when compared with league averages at the time – than Yu Darvish, the Texas Rangers ace who’s easily the best pitcher the Japanese leagues have sent to North America.
Not quite as overpowering as Darvish, Tanaka still has the pitch selection that – barring injury – makes him a prime candidate for a long-term deal.
He also has great flexibilty: Fox Sports reports the deal includes an opt-out clause after four years, which means Tanaka can cash in even more should he find success in the major leagues.
So, you might not see the Darvish fastball, but it’s still a good one. And think Koji Uehara’s splitter plus an above-average slider.
Tanaka doesn’t come to North American with the rock-star persona Darvish had cultivated in Japan, but the next Japanese ace has the necessary baseball credibility at home to arrive with special status.
When Japanese media members were discussing during last year’s World Series – and Boston closer Koji Uehara’s suddenly elevated status — the hero-level status of Japanese players who have come to the major leagues, they often referred to “Koshien.”
That’s the annual Japanese national high school tournament held at Koshien Stadium, the iconic home of the Hanshin Tigers of Japan’s Central League. Once a star in that tournament, a Japanese player has legendary status.
Count Ichiro Suzuki, Daisuke Matsuzaka on that list. Darvish’s team never won the tourney but he achieved a lesser level of notoriety for a no-hitter in one of the four years he was in the competition.
Tanaka didn’t win either, but is a big part of the lore.
In 2006, he entered the championship game as a reliever in the third inning and pitched through the 15th, when the 1-1 game was stopped, requiring a replay the next day. Tanaka relieved in the first inning the next day after his team fell behind 1-0 and finished the game without allowing a run. Winning pitcher Yuki Saito – who now plays for the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters but missed most of last season with shoulder problems – pitched all 24 innings for his team and struck out Tanaka to end the second game.
High workloads at an early age for Japanese pitchers remain a underlying concern for major league teams considering long-term contracts. For every Darvish, who hasn’t pitched fewer than 182 innings since 2006, there’s a Saito, who has 39 career games as a pro.
Tanaka, who often goes by the nickname Makun to teammates, has averaged 188 innings in his seven years since turning pro out of high school and none of those seasons was more spectacular than 2013. His combined record over the past three seasons is 53-9 with a 1.44 ERA and 583 strikeouts and 78 walks in 511 innings.