Thursday, January 23, 2014

Masahiro Tanaka Signing Thoughts & Afterthoughts

(Courtesy of Mike Eder/IIATMS/TYA)

For a while there it didn't look like Masahiro Tanaka was even going to be posted.  The dragging out of the new NPB posting rules put his availability and the Yankees' plan to upgrade their rotation in jeopardy.  When he finally was posted it looked for a time like maybe the Yankees weren't going to win the competition for him.  Every day for the last week or so there has been a new team that was reported to be the favorite for Tanaka.  Last week it was the D'backs, Monday it was the Dodgers, and Tuesday, the night before the reported soft deadline set by Tanaka and his agent to make their decision, it was the Cubs.

Once again though, the reputation, history, and checkbook of the Yankees overcame all and was the deciding factor in Tanaka's choice.  The time and effort the Yankees put into scouting and targeting Tanaka as their true #1 free agent target paid off and in the end the Yankees got their man.  Their rotation has the jolt it needed, the last piece of their offseason puzzle is in place, and the Yanks are once again at the top of the conversation regarding AL contenders.  After the jump, my take on the signing and what it means for Tanaka and the Yanks going forward.

- $155 million.  For 7 years.  Damn that's a lot of money.  5th highest pitching contract in terms of total value in MLB history, 8th highest in terms of AAV, and Tanaka immediately vaults into the top percentile of highest paid MLB players.  Not bad at all for a guy who's never taken the ball in a single American professional game, but a great indicator of how great a pitcher Tanaka is capable of being.

- Of course, there's a lot of whining and crying happening on Twitter by fans and writers of all the teams who got beat out by the Yankees.  The typical arguments of "the Yankees just try to buy championships," and "all this spending is bad for baseball" are being thrown around at a record pace and personally I love it.  If the Dodgers would have signed Tanaka, it wouldn't be a problem.  If the Red Sox or Phillies or Angels signed him, it wouldn't be a problem.  But because it was the Yankees, it's the worst thing in the world and bad for baseball.  They hate because they want to be.

- How quickly all these people forget that the only reason the Yankees had to pay this much to sign Tanaka was because Bud went way out of his way to level the playing field for the small market teams and give everybody an equal shot at paying posting fees.  That lowering of the upfront fee is what turned this into a regular free agent situation, and just like in every other free agent situation, the team(s) with the most money are the ones who are going to land the big fish.  If you want to bitch about the Yankees signing Tanaka to $22 mil a year, bitch at MLB for facilitating that by changing the posting system.

- On the specifics of the contract, I don't have as big a problem with the length or dollars as I did on some of the earlier contracts the Yanks handed out this offseason, mainly because I knew that's what it was going to take to get Tanaka.  The baseline was 6 years/$120 mil, Casey Close told teams it was going to take a 7th year to get a deal done, and the Yankees were so pot committed that they had to abide.  Either that or go fish in the Paul Maholm/Bronson Arroyo pond.

- The 4th year opt-out clause is an interesting wrinkle I didn't see coming, and I actually think it works to the Yankees' advantage.  While I think it's ridiculous how many of the Twitter babies are throwing out the "this guy will be the next Hideki Irabu now" argument, there is a non-zero chance of that happening.  There's also the chance that Tanaka gets hurt and doesn't live up to the contract, at which point it might benefit the Yankees to let him walk.  If that happens, they end up only being committed to a 4-year/$88 million deal through the middle of Tanaka's prime.  If it doesn't and he lives up to the hype, they'll surely re-up him and control him through his entire prime.  It's a win-win for both sides.

- Kudos to Close for the job he did in negotiating this deal and even bigger kudos to him for keeping things so quiet.  Cash said yesterday that he didn't even know where the Yankees stood in the running until Tuesday night.  Save for the Cubs leaking a few things, the entire process was kept under wraps and Close deserves a lot of credit for that.  Dude has been on an absolute tear lately in the agent world.

- As far as Tanaka the pitcher, I do think he's going to live up to the hype.  Everything I've read about him and the little bit I've seen on him makes him sound more than legit.  He's got multiple plus pitches, he commands his stuff well, he changes speeds, he goes after hitters, and he sounds like he's got the mindset to not only hold his own but thrive in the big NY media environment.  This isn't Kei Igawa with mediocre stuff or Hideo Nomo with a funky delivery.  This is a polished, smart pitcher with a history of pitching his best games in his biggest games.

- So where does he fit into the rotation?  If you want to put labels on him, I think the fair expectation is for Tanaka to be the team's #2 starter and the high expectation would be for him to assume the "ace" role that CC Sabathia seems to be giving up.  That's the type of ceiling Tanaka has, so why not hold him to that standard?

- That said, I think he opens the season as the #3 starter behind CC and Hirok in the rotation order and I think that's the smart move.  Both of those guys are established veterans who've been absolute beasts for the overwhelming majority of their Yankee careers.  They've earned the right to keep their spots in the rotation and I think there exists the possibility of added motivation for them to pitch well this year knowing they've got the next great young hype pitching behind them.

- I also think it's wise to temper expectations for Tanaka, just as a way to quell any of the concern about him flaming out and becoming the next Igawa or Irabu.  You know that fear is in the back of every Yankee fan's mind and they aren't going to be shy about expressing it if/when Tanaka has a bad outing.  By settling him into the middle of the rotation, the Yanks can ease some of the pressure on him and allow him to get used to his new team and new surroundings at his own pace.

- The boost that Tanaka gives to the rotation, while not as big as some made it out to be, is very real.  A 3-5 of Ivan Nova, Michael Pineda, and David Phelps doesn't strike much fear into teams.  A 3-5 of Tanaka, Nova, and Pineda if all 3 pitch to their capability could be devastating, even more so if CC bounces back and Hirok keeps doing his thing.

- Operation 189 is obviously out the window now, and Cash did say yesterday that the team was done doing its "heavy lifting" for the offseason.  I'm OK with that, but I do hope that doesn't mean they're going to abandon looking for bullpen and bench upgrades completely.  There are still players out there who can be had at reasonable prices and now that they're over the LT threshold the Yanks have no reason to stop spending.

- It's always fun speculating what number a new Yankee will get and it's a little more fun in Tanaka's case.  18 is the traditional "ace" number in Japan but that already belongs to Hirok.  Gun to my head right now, I say he goes with 17 this season and then switches to 18 whenever Hirok retires or returns to Japan.

- To sum it up, I'm very happy with this move by the Yankees and very excited to watch Tanaka pitch.  If his turn in the rotation comes during that early May weekend series out here in Milwaukee, I'm going to be giddy as a schoolgirl.  The Yankees needed another starting pitcher, they needed to get younger, and they ended up getting the best starting pitcher available at what sounds like fair market value who just turned 25 years old.  They didn't give up any draft picks or any prospects to get him and the future of their rotation, both immediately and long-term, looks much brighter than it did before.

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