The last time the Yankees took a plunge in the international free agent market, they ended up spending almost $50 million on Kei Igawa, the Droopy Dog-faced Japanese lefty who proved to be worth not even a single cent of that money. Ever since that disaster, one in which the Yanks admitted they didn't even know what pitches Igawa threw, New York has spent the last few offseasons on the sidelines when it's come to the top international free agents, choosing to spend their money on more well-known MLB commodities. In doing so they've missed out on guys like Yu Darvish and Yoenis Cespedes, high-ceiling talents who came with question marks and price tags that proved to be enough to scare the Yankee front office away.
With the team hanging perilously on the edge of a major decline, the roster looking old and beat up, and ownership putting a cap on the salary, this offseason might not be a bad time for the Yankees to tag themselves back into the international market and inject their franchise with some much-needed youth and excitement. With the way they've tracked the 2 biggest names in this year's market, that could be exactly what they're planning to do.
Throughout the season, the Yankees were one of a few teams connected to Japanese pitching prospect Masahiro Tanaka, a 24-year-old righty coming off a 22-0 season with a 1.23 ERA in his Japanese league. Their interest was serious enough that assistant GM Billy Eppler spent several weeks in Japan during the regular season watching Tanaka's starts. He's yet to be posted by his Japanese team, but expectations are that he eventually will be and with the amount of time they've spent tracking him, the Yankees are expected to be one of the teams who at least makes a serious posting offer for him.
The other top international FA this winter, 26-year-old righty Cuban slugger Jose Abreu, hasn't drawn as much interest from the Yankees as Tanaka, at least not until this week when the NY Post reported that the Yankees were among several teams with scouts on hand to watch Abreu's workouts in the Dominican Republic. Abreu is a big guy with big power, although his overall hitting approach and defensive abilities are questionable at best. He also plays first base, where the Yanks currently have Mark Teixeira penciled in for next year and presumably the next couple until his contract is up, so he might not be the best fit on paper.
While there's been little indication yet that the Yankees are going to make big pushes for either of these guys, their increased level of scouting involvement speaks to a change in plans from the last few offseasons. The Yanks were never really seriously in the game for Darvish, Cespedes, or fellow Cuban OF prospects Yasiel Puig and Jorge Soler. Their approach with those players suggested a high level of hesitation to commit big money to unknown commodities, perhaps influenced by the big flops with Igawa and Jose Contreras. For whatever reason, the Yankees have been incredibly gun shy when it came to those guys and they've watched Darvish, Cespedes, and Puig flourish in MLB and perform at All Star or near All Star levels.
Tanaka and Abreu are not on the same level as Darvish and Cespedes when it comes to talent and projected MLB ceiling, at least based on most scouting reports. They're still expected to sign comparable contracts to those players though, and with Japanese posting fees not counting towards the luxury tax, the AAV of those contracts would fit nicely into the Yankees' payroll plans. Instead of shelling out $12-15 million for MLB vets in their late 20s-early 30s, the Yanks can lock up players just starting or before their primes for $8-12 million. They'd be getting younger, getting better, staying financially responsible, and giving ownership some more international names to help draw crowds to The Stadium and sell more ads.
There's very little downside to getting in on the Tanaka/Abreu action and all signs are pointing towards the Yankees doing just that. With the amount of time and resources they've committed to scouting Tanaka this season, it would be a shock and a disappointment if they didn't make a major posting fee commitment if and when Tanaka is posted. The Yankees played things cautiously after blowing it on Igawa, and they've seen how that played out for the teams who did take the chance. They've stepped up their scouting game in an effort to not repeat the Igawa mistake, and it would be in their best interests to flex that financial muscle again and try to make a splash one at least one of these top 2 international targets.