Unlike Igawa, Yankees did their homework before going all in on Tanaka

(J. Meric/Getty)
(J. Meric/Getty)

By any measure, Kei Igawa was one of the biggest busts in Yankees history. The team spent a total of $46M to acquire him ($26M posting fee and then a five-year, $20M contract) during the 2006-07 offseason, and in return they received a 68 ERA+ in 71.2 big league innings. Igawa made his final appearance in pinstripes in June 2008 and spent most of those five years in the minors.

“It was a disaster. We failed,” said Brian Cashman to Bill Pennington in July 2011 when asked to evaluated the southpaw’s tenure with the team. According to NPB Tracker, Igawa told the Japanese version of the Wall Street Journal that Cashman and the team’s coaching staff had to ask him what his best pitch was during their first meeting. It became clear then and is obvious now the Yankees didn’t do their homework before investing $46M in the lefty. Failed might be an understatement.

For the first time since the Igawa fiasco, the Yankees finally dipped back into the Japanese talent pool last week, signing right-hander Masahiro Tanaka to a seven-year contract worth $155M. The $20M release fee means the total investment is $175M, or nearly four times what they put into Igawa. Tanaka is younger and has been statistically better than Igawa was when the team signed him, but, more importantly, the Yankees made sure not to repeat their mistake and actually did their homework this time.

“We started evaluating [Tanaka] back in 2007,” said Cashman to reporters (including Andy McCullough) during a conference call last week. “So clearly we’ve been scouting over in Japan for quite some time. The evaluations on him started on him back in 2007. Certainly paid attention to him back in the 2009 WBC, when we were first able to evaluate him with a Major League baseball, against Major League hitters. This year we were at 15 of his games, including the WBC, and we sent a Major League scout from the U.S. to evaluate him in the playoffs as well.”

Tanaka was an 18-year-old rookie with the Rakuten Golden Eagles in 2007, so the Yankees have essentially watched him grow from a just-graduated high schooler into the best pitcher in the world who wasn’t employed by a Major League team. “By 2009, the Yankees were drooling over Tanaka and imagining what it would be like to have him in their rotation,” wrote Jack Curry following the deal. Here’s some more from his post:

Across the last few seasons, the Yankees have studied Tanaka’s impressive exploits on the mound and have seen a fierce competitor, someone that reminds them of CC Sabathia. The Yankees interviewed Andruw Jones, Casey McGehee and Darrell Rasner, former Yankees who all were teammates with Tanaka, and heard superb reports about his demeanor and toughness. By the time the Yankees made their offer to Tanaka, they had 11 different scouting evaluations from members of their organization.

When that many people evaluate a player, there are bound to be differences of opinion. It’s no surprise then that we heard one unnamed team official recently say: “Just because he had great success over there doesn’t mean he’s going to be lights out here. We’ll find out soon enough, but it’s not like he’s a sure-fire thing. I’d like to think so, but I’m not convinced.” Those differences of opinion are a good thing. There should always be someone challenging the popular opinion and forcing them to look deeper, especially when talking about a deal of this magnitude.

(AP/Kyodo News)
(AP/Kyodo News)

“We made a determined effort to put ourselves in the position to know as much as we possibly could, in the event that he was ever posted,” added Cashman. “So this has been a long, drawn-out process, not just from the financial negotiating standpoint that’s taken since he was posted. But obviously making sure that we were in a position that in the event a talent such as his became available that we were able to make recommendations accordingly, based on the scouting assessments.”

Based on various reports, several other clubs had interest in Tanaka and were offering contracts in excess of $100M, including the pitching-wise Dodgers, White Sox and Diamondbacks. The Cubs supposedly made an offer similar to the Yankees’ but refused to include the opt-out clause after the fourth year, which is why they lost out. They aren’t ready to contend immediately and didn’t want to lose him right as their window opened. Those teams all spent time scouting Tanaka and thought enough of him to make significant offers, so the Yankees aren’t the only team to consider him an impact starter. (Just FYI: The next highest bid for Igawa was $15M by the Mets.)

It’s entirely possible Tanaka will be a bust like Igawa, just way more expensive. No one can truly know how he will handle the big leagues until he gets up on a mound in games that mean something. If Tanaka does flame out or merely settles in as a number four or five starter rather than the number two he is widely considered, it won’t be because the Yankees didn’t do their homework. They’ve been on him for years and were one of several teams to think highly of his combination or age, ability, and stuff. Igawa was a disaster, no doubt about it, but the Yankees seem to have learned from that experience. They won’t be caught with too little information again.

Projecting Masahiro Tanaka

(Koji Watanabe/Getty)
(Koji Watanabe/Getty)

Now that Masahiro Tanaka is officially a Yankee, we can finally stop talking about what it will take to land him and begin to focus on how he might actually … you know … pitch next season. Novel idea, I know. Unfortunately scouting reports and NPB stats don’t tell us much about how Tanaka will handle the transition from NPB to the AL East, nevermind the cultural change and all the off-the-field stuff he’ll have to deal with. It can be overwhelming.

Most reports have indicated Tanaka will be a number two starter in the big leagues and that means … I don’t know, really. Aces are pretty easy to identify; they’re the guys who have strung together a few years of truly elite production*. Justin Verlander, Felix Hernandez, Clayton Kershaw, guys like that. You can see them a mile away. They’re in their own little world. Number twos are a little different, they’re a notch below the aces but still among the top 25-30 starters in the game. At least that’s what I think.

* That “strung together a few years” part is important in my opinion. It’s possible for a pitcher to have a random ace-like season (Esteban Loaiza!) but the true aces are the guys who do it year after year.

A few days ago Dan Szymborski (subs. req’d) ran Tanaka through his ZiPS system to come up with a projected performance over the life of the seven-year contract. Projections are not predictions, they’re just an estimation of a player’s true talent level. There’s wiggle room in each direction and that is especially true when talking about a pitcher making the transition from NPB to MLB. Here’s what the system spit out:

Masahiro Tanaka ZiPS

Let’s focus on 2014-17 since Tanaka can opt-out after the fourth year. They’re the only guaranteed years of the contract. ZiPS has Tanaka sitting in the 3.5-4.0 WAR range during those four years, averaging 3.8 WAR per seasons. Pitchers who have averaged roughly 3.8 WAR per year from 2011-12 include Kris Medlen, Jhoulys Chacin, Kyle Lohse, Zack Greinke, and Doug Fister. Those guys feel like number twos right? They were among the top 25 pitchers in baseball by WAR over the last two seasons, so they fit what we talked about a paragraph or two ago.

I suspect the general sense will be that Tanaka did not live up to expectations if he manages a 3.68 ERA and 3.8 WAR next season, but I think that would actually be pretty awesome in his first year stateside. ZiPS projected Yu Darvish for a 3.62 ERA and 4.5 WAR two years ago, a bit better than his actual 3.90 ERA and 3.9 WAR. The system was in the ballpark, at least. If Tanaka finishes with, say, a 4.00 ERA and 3.0 WAR in 2014, it would still be pretty good but I think most would say he failed to meet expectations, fair or not.

The projections shouldn’t be taken to heart, obviously. It is an objective measure based on historical data though, and that’s better than guessing, which is what we’d be doing otherwise. If Tanaka lives up to the projections and gives the team something close to 4.0 WAR during the first four years of his contract, he’ll have more than lived up to the contract. If he settles in as a 3.0 WAR pitcher instead, that’ll be fine too. Maybe not what we all expected but not bad by any means.

Sanchez and Williams crack MLB.com’s top 100 prospects list

MLB.com released their list of the top 100 prospects in baseball yesterday, a list that was predictably topped by Twins OF Byron Buxton. He’s the clear number one prospect in the game right now. Red Sox SS Xander Bogaerts and Cardinals OF Oscar Taveras round out the top ten. Nearly one-quarter (23, to be exact) of the players on the list belong to the Red Sox, Astros, or Cubs. That seems like a lot.

The Yankees had two players make the top 100: C Gary Sanchez (47th) and OF Mason Williams (75th). RHP Masahiro Tanaka is technically a rookie/prospect, but he was ineligible for list given his already lengthy pro career. Ditto White Sox 1B Jose Abreu. Jim Callis said he would have ranked Tanaka somewhere in the 4-7 range had he been eligible. MLB.com’s list is always off the beaten path a bit and that’s not a bad thing; different opinions are good. I’m not sure if we’ll see Williams on another top 100 list this spring though.

The top 100 link includes a scouting report and video for all 100 prospects, as well as a breakdown of the top ten prospects by position. Sanchez ranks fourth among catcher and 1B Greg Bird is seventh among first basemen. There’s also a companion piece looking at the best individual tools among the various prospects.

Tanaka Speaks: “I’m going there to win the World Series”

On Thursday afternoon in Japan, Masahiro Tanaka spoke to the media for the first time since becoming a Yankee. He signed a seven-year contract worth $155M yesterday, a little more than two days before his 30-day signing period expired. The video above is just a small clip of Thursday’s press conference, but here’s some more from Jim Armstrong and Hiroko Tabuchi:

“They gave me the highest evaluation and are a world-famous team,” said Tanaka when asked why he chose the Yankees. “I’m going there to win the World Series. I can’t wait to get to the pitcher’s mound at Yankees Stadium.”

“In Japan, a bad pitch might end in a single, but at the majors, that could be a homerun. The hitting power is different,” he said. “And they’re careful with pitch counts over there … It’s not like I’ve never played ball before. I don’t want to overthink it.”

“I don’t speak English so I’ll just have to win the trust and confidence of the fans with my performance on the field,” said Tanaka. “Everything will be new and challenging, but I have to rely on the ability that got me this far.”

“I really don’t know anything at all,” he joked when asked about New York. “I’ve only been there once, and I don’t remember much, just that the weather wasn’t good … I’d better start looking up what it’s really like.”

Tanaka also said that he spoke to Yu Darvish and former big leaguer/Rakuten Golden Eagles teammate Takashi Saito about life in the big leagues before making his final decision. The Yankees are working on putting together a press conference for Tanaka in New York, presumably at Yankee Stadium, but at won’t happen until next week at the earliest according to Andrew Marchand.

Thoughts following the Masahiro Tanaka signing

(Koji Watanabe/Getty)
(Koji Watanabe/Getty)

In the span of about four hours yesterday, we went from wondering where Masahiro Tanaka will sign to the Yankees announcing his new seven-year contract. It was a fun morning, no doubt about it. The contract is worth $155M and includes an opt-out after the fourth year. Add the $20M release fee on top of that for a total commitment of $175M. Here are some thoughts following the deal.

1. Might as well just start with this to get it out of the way: I think the contract is more than reasonable and probably a bargain when you consider what other high-end 25-year-olds would get on the open market. No, he’s never pitched in MLB, but it’s not like they plucked him out of a beer league. The contract is expensive, don’t get me wrong, but as Hal Steinbrenner said yesterday, “market value is what one or more teams are willing to pay today.” Several other clubs were reportedly willing to pay Tanaka upwards of $20M+ annually, so the Yankees weren’t out in their own little world with this offer. It’s comforting knowing other teams believed in his talent enough to offer similar dollars. I’d feel differently if Tanaka was a few years older but the team is (theoretically) buying almost all of his peak years since he just turned 25 in November. If he pitches like prime Dan Haren (the most common comp) from ages 25-28 and then opts out, it will have been a brilliant signing. It’s the next contract, the one that comes after the opt-out and involves buying a whole bunch of decline years, that will be the really scary one.

2. Was it not amazing how the whole process was kept quiet? We didn’t hear a peep about negotiations between the Yankees and Tanaka and certainly nothing about an offer or details of their face-to-face meeting. Nothing at all. It was like that for most teams too, with the Cubs being the notable exception. Theo Epstein’s regime always seems to leak everything to media. It happened with the Red Sox and it’s happening again in Chicago. Agent Casey Close wanted things kept quiet and managed to pull it off even though he was dealing with some of the game’s largest markets and reporters in two countries. Scott Boras is still the king of all agents, but Close has really shined these last 14 months with the Tanaka, Clayton Kershaw, and Zack Greinke deals.

3. I did this exercise a few weeks ago and it’s probably worth revisiting: how many games would the Yankees win in 2014 as presently constructed? That means Tanaka in the rotation but question marks in the bullpen and on the infield. We can agree they’re in the 85-89 win range right now, right? Maybe it’s more like 82-86 or 87-91, but the point is they are right on the postseason bubble. Each added win is so incredibly important to the Yankees right now — both financially and in terms of their #brand — because the value of jumping from a bubble team to a legit contender is so very high, the highest point on the so-called win curve. Going from 80 wins to 82 wins or 98 wins to 100 wins means little in the grand scheme of things, but going from 86 to 88 or 89 to 91 is huge. We can’t lump the Yankees under the general contract analysis/dollars-per-WAR umbrella for a number of reasons, one being their payroll. One win (or one WAR) isn’t worth $5M or $7M or whatever it is these days to the Yankees. It’s worth much more because of how much they depend on being competitive and where they presently sit on that win curve. If the Yankees are a true talent 88-win team right now (reasonable estimate, no?), adding players to get that 89th and 90th and 91st win will be the most crucial additions of the winter.

(Kevork Djansezian/Getty)
(Kevork Djansezian/Getty)

4. Now, that said, the Yankees snuffed out any lingering chance of staying under the $189M luxury tax threshold with the Tanaka signing yesterday, so they should go all out and continue adding payroll. I have their payroll at roughly $204M right now (last update), which is about $10M less than their average Opening Day payroll over the last three years. If they’re willing to go up that high again (nevermind meeting last year’s $228.1M payroll), there’s still enough room to add two pretty good pieces to the team. It’s probably not enough for Stephen Drew but that $10M might buy them Luis Ayala and a discounted Grant Balfour, for example. Or maybe Fernando Rodney (ewww) and Jeff Baker. Brian Cashman said the team is done with their “heavy lifting” yesterday, but spending that last $10M to fill out the margins of the roster really isn’t “heavy lifting,” is it? The bullpen is the easiest place upgrade right now and that last $10M could give the team those extra two or three wins to put them over the top.

5. This is probably just a coincidence, but the total outlay for Tanaka was identical to the team’s final offer to Robinson Cano. Perhaps they had budgeted 7/175 for Cano and then another ~7/150 for Tanaka coming into the offseason, but when Robbie made it clear he was going to the Mariners, they switched gears and gave the ~7/150 to Jacoby Ellsbury and spent the 7/175 to Tanaka. If that’s the case and they had re-signed Cano, would they have a) missed out on Tanaka because their contract offer would have been capped at $130M (plus the $20M release fee on top of that), or b) bid something like $75M under the old posting system and offered him a $75M contract (the Yu Darvish and Daisuke Matsuzka commitments were split almost right down the middle, half posting fee and half contract)? This offseason has been so fascinating because it has played out so unexpectedly. If you had told me in like, September that the Yankees would lose Cano to the Mariners and commit $175M to Tanaka, I would have thought you were completely crazy.

6. There’s a very real chance Tanaka will be the youngest player on the team’s Opening Day roster, perhaps by as much as eight or nine months. There are only 14 players younger than him on the 40-man roster right now, and I think the only ones with a realistic chance to make the team out of camp are Cesar Cabral, Michael Pineda, Jose Ramirez, and I guess Zoilo Almonte if Ichiro Suzuki is traded. Austin Romine or J.R. Murphy could make the team if Frankie Cervelli gets hurt, but that’s all. (Tanaka’s younger than Dellin Betances … by seven months!) I don’t really know why I brought this up. I just thought it was interesting. The Yankees haven’t had much luck with young players in recent years but I didn’t think a 25-year-old free agent would wind up becoming their youngest player. Goes to show how important Tanaka is to the future of the franchise. He’s a crucial piece as they finish transitioning out of the Derek Jeter/late-90s dynasty era.

7. This isn’t all that important but I am curious to see what number Tanaka wears. He wore 18 with the Rakuten Golden Eagles and that, along with 11, are considered the traditional “ace numbers” in Japan. Those numbers are already taken though (Brett Gardner and Hiroki Kuroda). Tanaka did wear 15 and 17 in the last two World Baseball Classics but he’s definitely not getting the former — it’s retired for Thurman Munson. Seventeen is open though. Know what number would be cool for Tanaka? 21. It’ll never happen though.

It’s official: Masahiro Tanaka’s a Yankee

Well that was fast. The Yankees have officially signed right-hander Masahiro Tanaka to a seven-year contract, the team announced. He will be the seventh Japanese-born player in team history (Hideki Irabu, Hideki Matsui, Kei Igawa, Hiroki Kuroda, Ryota Igarashi, Ichiro Suzuki). The 2004 Dodgers are the only other team to have two Japanese pitchers in one rotation (Hideo Nomo and Kaz Ishii).

To clear a spot on the 40-man roster, left-hander David Huff was designated for assignment. He had a nice run as a swingman late last year but he doesn’t really have a spot on the roster thanks to Matt Thornton, Vidal Nuno, and Cesar Cabral. Huff would have been a long man/second lefty in the bullpen at best. Maybe he’ll clear waivers and stick around as a non-40-man player, but electing free agency is more likely.

Details of the Yankees’ contract agreement with Masahiro Tanaka

It was his destiny.
It was his destiny. (source)

After weeks and months of waiting, the Yankees finally got their man. The team agreed to a seven-year contract worth $155M with right-hander Masahiro Tanaka on Wednesday morning, a deal that includes an opt-out after the fourth year. Add in the $20M release fee the team must pay the Rakuten Golden Eagles and the total investment is potentially $175M. The release fee will be paid out in installments.

Pretty much everything we know about Tanaka the pitcher is in this post. Now that he’s come to an agreement, some details about the contract itself and the Yankees’ pursuit have come to light. Here’s a roundup, courtesy of Joel Sherman, Ken Rosenthal, Buster Olney, Dan Barbarisi, Ronald Blum, Jeff PassanBryan Hoch, Jon Heyman, and Anthony McCarron.

Pursuing Tanaka
The Yankees sent an eight-person crew to Los Angeles to meet with Tanaka face-to-face a few weeks ago, when he was essentially interviewing teams. Those eight people: team president Randy Levine, GM Brian Cashman, assistant GMs Jean Afterman and Billy Eppler, manager Joe Girardi, pitching coach Larry Rothschild, player development staffer Trey Hillman, and translator George Rose. Hillman just rejoined the organization and spent four years managing in Japan not too long ago. Hideki Matsui made a recruiting call at some point as well.

After listening to each team’s pitch and mulling over the offers, the two sides haggled a bit and Tanaka’s camp informed the Yankees they had to offer the seventh year to get a deal done, so they did. He may have turned down more money from another team, reportedly. I’m guessing the Cubs were the top bidder if another team did make a better offer, but that’s just a guess. The Yankees were informed Tanaka accepted their offer at 1am ET this morning, 3pm local time in Japan. I guess all the reporters were sleeping because the news didn’t break for another nine hours or so.

Hal Speaks
“I have been saying for well over a year now that it makes sense to meet [the $189 million threshold], but not at the expense of a championship-caliber team,” said Hal Steinbrenner following the signing. “I felt we needed another starter. We were not where we needed to be, in my opinion. So this should not be a surprise because [Tanaka] was the best free-agent pitcher available. He is one of the greatest players Japan has ever produced. He is tough. He has thrived under pressure. He will fit in well to New York.

“Market value is what one or more teams are willing to pay today. He is one of the best players Japan has produced and he has played well on the big stage in big games. I think he will be great for our organization and will do very, very well. But, honestly, I don’t feel that [we’d spend whatever it takes] for any player, as we showed earlier this offseason [with Robinson Cano]. That is not good for the family, our partners or the organization. There was a limit of what we were willing to do, but, yes, I felt it was important to get him.”

Hank Speaks
“We’re going to do what we’ve got to do to win. We had to make sure we had enough pitching to go together with our new lineup,” said Hank Steinbrenner following the signing. “There has been criticism of myself and my brother the last couple years that, gee, if our dad was still in charge, we’d be spending this and spending that and doing whatever it takes to win. He didn’t have revenue sharing, at least for most of his time. That’s what these people in the sports media don’t seem to get. If it wasn’t for revenue sharing, we’d have a payroll of $300M a year if we wanted to. So we’re doing this despite having to pay all that revenue sharing.”

No Physical
The Yankees will not have Tanaka take a second physical. He was examined by Dr. Neal ElAttrache when he was in Los Angeles a few weeks ago as a way to facilitate the process, so the team reviewed the test results and are comfortable with them. It’s exactly what they did with Hiroki Kuroda two years ago. ElAttrache is the Dodgers’ team doctor who also consults for NFL, NBA, and NHL teams as well as PGA golfers. He’s not some quack like Dr. Nick. It’s surprising the Yankees aren’t having their doctors look at Tanaka but it’s not like they’re signing him sight unseen either.

Contract Details
The contract is very straight forward: Tanaka will earn $22M in each of the first six years and $23M in the seventh year. The average annual value is $22.14M for luxury tax purposes. Agent Casey Close insisted on the opt-out clause, which is the new trend in baseball. Close also secured opt-outs for Zack Greinke and Clayton Kershaw recently, plus the Yankees gave one to CC Sabathia a few years ago. A.J. Burnett opted out of his contract with the Blue Jays before signing with New York. They’re the cost of doing business these days.

Tanaka just turned 25 in November, so the four guaranteed years of his contract will cover his age 25-28 seasons. That’s really awesome, those should be his best years, at least in theory. The opt-out allows Tanaka to test free agency at age 29, when he could land another huge payday. That second contract, the one he signs at 29, will be the real scary one. We can consider this a four-year, $88M deal with a three-year, $67M player option for all intents and purposes, but there is some luxury tax calculation difference between an opt-out and a player option. It’s complicated.

The Yankees are going to have to make a 40-man roster move to accommodate Tanaka sometime before 5pm ET on Friday. He has to physically sign the contract by the deadline. David Huff seems most likely to get the roster axe but Ramon Flores is another option. The team could also work out a small trade to clear a spot. Either way, it’ll have to be done relatively soon.

These deals always contain some fun perks. In addition to the huge salary, Tanaka also receives a $35k moving allowance, a $100k annual housing allowance to be used in New York or near the team’s Spring Training complex in Tampa, and $85k to hire an interpreter of his choice. The Yankees are also giving him four first class round trip plane tickets from New York and Japan. Oh, and he gets a full no-trade clause.

Historical Perspective
In terms of total dollars, the $155M guarantee is fifth largest pitching contract in history, behind Kershaw ($215M), Justin Verlander ($180M), Felix Hernandez ($175M), and CC Sabathia ($161M). It is the ninth largest pitching contract in history in terms of average annual value, behind Kershaw ($30.7M), Verlander ($25.7M), Felix ($25M), Greinke ($24.5M), Sabathia ($24.4M), Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee (both $24M), and Johan Santana ($22.9M). It is the 18th largest contract in baseball history overall and by frickin’ far the largest ever given to an international player. The six-year, $68M deal the White Sox gave Jose Abreu earlier this winter was the previous record.

After seeing ratings and attendance (and revenue) plummet last year, the Yankees went all-out this winter to improve their team. They still have holes, yes, but they’re also much improved. Tanaka was their top pitching target all along and now he’s in pinstripes.