Masahiro Tanaka and the quest for 2014 pitchingBy
Mike has kept us informed on the Masahiro Tanaka front over the past few weeks. At this point, it certainly seems as though the team is doing its due diligence and is at least showing some degree of interest, though who knows if it’ll materialize into anything in the offseason. The Yankees have sent their assistant GM, Billy Eppler, along with special assignment scout (and former Mariners manager/Blue Jays bench coach/MLB player), Don Wakamatsu, to go and check him out. I’m sure New York has a bevy of other scouts who have followed Tanaka’s career as well. Whether the team should pursue Tanaka is a difficult question, but one worth asking. Let’s take a look.
Does Tanaka satisfy a need?
Obviously, the Yankees have a lot of question marks surrounding the 2014 rotation. Who knows whether CC Sabathia can become a solid pitcher again, nevermind a top of the rotation arm. Who knows if Andy Pettitte or Hiroki Kuroda plan on returning. Hell, who knows what Ivan Nova really is at this point. David Phelps and Michael Pineda provide zero certainty as well. Phil Hughes will almost certainly be gone. Can the team promote from within sufficiently? Well, they can try, but color me unconvinced.
Point is, the Yankees need pitching heading into next season in a big way. Now the skeptic could rightfully ask, does it make sense to replace so many question marks with another question mark? To that I would reply: probably, since scouts seem to agree that Tanaka is MLB ready and capable of producing positively. Additionally, every potential pitcher replacement has some degree of inherent risk, so perhaps what we really should be asking is whether Tanaka is more of a question mark than some of the alternatives (i.e. Roy Halladay or Tim Lincecum), and I don’t think that he necessarily is. As an aside, even after the presumably exorbitant posting fee and subsequent contract are offered, I’d still have to wonder if he would be a cheaper alternative than a “proven guy” like Matt Garza (who may not even be available anyway), which of course would be desirable if the $189M payroll is still the objective.
Does free agency offer anyone better?
With the exception of Matt Garza, the 2014 free agent crop of starting pitchers is pretty wanting. Maybe Ubaldo Jimenez is available and maybe you can make the argument that he’s more desirable at this point (he’s pitched great for the Indians since the All-Star break and his strikeout rates are heading back in the right direction). I’m not sure I’m sold on Ubaldo though (admittedly, I’ve never been his biggest fan). You can bet Jon Lester will have his club option picked up. Ditto for James Shields. Halladay will be 37 years old with some major health concerns. I guess there’s Tim Lincecum if you believe that ship can be righted (though as I insinuated above, I think both he and Halladay have major red flags). I suppose Dan Haren (33) is an option too, though I have my doubts about his health and skill set (talk about home run prone!). We talk about assuming risk. Well, prepare to assume a fair amount with all these guys.
Will Tanaka’s skill set hold up in the Majors?
That’s the key question, isn’t it? I’ll defer you to Mike’s scouting report from the other day for the details, but to put it succinctly, if Tanaka can become a number two type of arm at the MLB level immediately — which is apparently the consensus among scouts at this point – he’d be a major boost to any team, including New York. Is he Yu Darvish? No. Will he ever be? Probably not. Should that matter? I don’t think so. Most pitchers don’t wind up being one of the league’s best. Above average pitchers still have a lot of value though, and we’ve seen what happens to the bullpen (and record, ultimately) when one guy pitches great but is followed by a bunch of poor starts.
Are the Yankees leery of signing pitchers from Japan?
Unfortunately for Yankee fans, we’re all aware of this perception. Once upon a time, the Red Sox signed a supposed hot-shot pitcher named Daisuke Matsuzaka, while the Yankees paid a ton of cash for notable “other guy,” Kei Igawa. Obviously, neither contract worked out, though it’s clear that the Yanks hired the bigger bust. Then Darvish came along with impressive stuff. Everyone knew about the hype. The Rangers blew all the other organizations away with their bid while the Yankees posted a very conservative offer that was basically expected to fall short from the start. Apparently, this was partially due to the team’s experience with Igawa. So, here we are. The Rangers have a certifiable ace on their hands. The Yankees have a reputation of being scared of players from Japan (whether it’s justifiable or not). To wit, the Yanks also posted a conservative bid for Hyun-Jin Ryu ( though he was coming from South Korea).
I would hope the team could look at these players independently, and then assess whether they can be successful at the big league level. Avoiding talent because Igawa didn’t work out would not only be myopic, but just plain dumb. This needs to be a case-by-case decision. If Tanaka is MLB capable, he should be considered accordingly, period. If this is a question of Yankees scouting misreading talent (relative to their competition), that’s an entirely different problem and one that should be addressed immediately. That all said, I think there may be some degree of truth to the theory that the organization is worried about being burnt by an aggressive bid for one of these guys after the Igawa fiasco.
How much will Tanaka cost?
Total cop out answer: it depends, really. It’s a closed auction, so things have a tendency to get out of control pretty quickly. The Rangers won the Darvish bid at $51.7M. The Sox bid approximately $51.1M for the rights to talk with Dice-K. Last season, Ryu’s posting bid was roughly $25.7M. Tanaka is presumably not as good as Darvish, so maybe he winds up costing less. On the other hand, maybe teams are desperate for pitching and see him as someone at least comparable to Ryu, or maybe they even consider him more of a “sure thing” than Ryu. If I had to guess, I’d say the winning bid is about $40M.
From there, you then get to talk about player contracts. Darvish received a six-year, $56M contract which includes a player opt-out clause after the fifth year. It was a lot of money, but I think at this point, the Rangers are probably considering the contract a success in terms of production provided relative to the cost (at least so far). The Sox offered a six-year, $52M deal to Dice-K, which was a disaster. Ryu was also given a six-year deal that could be worth as much as $36M by the Dodgers. I suspect Tanaka will wind up closer to Darvish’s end of the spectrum than Ryu’s though. That means probably six years at approximately $7-8M per. In any event, when you consider what Garza will probably get, I think that a guy like Tanaka might make a ton of sense.