After much speculation, the 25-year-old Japanese ace Masahiro Tanaka has officially joined the rotation of the New York Yankees. As of January 21, he was reportedly down to the Chicago Cubs or the Yankees. Tanaka has signed a seven-year deal that is worth $155 million. The contract includes an opt out clause after the fourth year.
Hideki Matsui, who played outfield for the Yankees for seven seasons and was MVP of the 2009 World Series, reportedly called Tanaka on the Yankees behalf to try and recruit him, according to the YES Network. Tanaka will be the third current Yankee from Japan, joining Ichiro Suzuki and Hiroki Kuroda. The other four players from Japan that have played for the Yankees are Hideki Irabu, Kei Igawa, Ryota Igarashi.
His stats while playing for the Rakuten Golden Eagles of the Nippon Professional Baseball, which is Japan’s version of Major League Baseball, are outstanding. In seven seasons, starting at age 18, he compiled a 99-35 record, 1,238 strikeouts, only 275 walks and 53 complete games. Two seasons that stand out are this past season and his 2011 season. In 2011, he had a 19-5 record, an unbelievable 1.27 ERA in 226.1 innings and 241 strikeouts. This past season, Tanaka had 24 wins without a loss, matched his outstanding 1.27 ERA from 2011 (he will not come close to this ERA in 2014), only allowed 168 hits in 212 innings, while striking out 183 batters and only walking 32.
If Tanaka can have about a 3.20 ERA and 15-17 wins that would be a great first season away for the Yankees. He will have to adjust to a smaller baseball, a different strike zone and more talented hitters in the American League. However, since he is 25, he will be a key piece this season as well as in the future because CC Sabathia will turn 34 in July and Hiroki Kuroda is likely in his last season before he retires.
The concern with Tanaka is that he averaged 190 innings a year and threw 160 pitches in nine innings in the championship series this past season. Only about five players in the history of MLB have thrown as many pitches as Tanaka has in their first seven seasons, but if he turns out to be similar to Yu Darvish, the last Japanese import, he will be a great asset for the Yankees.
Scouts have said that he might be better than Darvish, and Tanaka throws a split-fingered fastball that Bobby Valentine has said is the best in the world. (Valentine was the manager of the Mets when the Yankees beat them in the World Series in 2000.) If this is true, then that will definitely translate. Valentine’s word can be believed because he managed in Japan’s Pacific League from 2004-2009 (part of Nippon Professional Baseball), which means that he managed against Tanaka for his first three seasons. Tanaka also has a slider, a four-seam fastball that has late movement, a two-seam fastball and a 71.5 MPH change up in his arsenal.
He should slot third in the pitching rotation behind CC Sabathia and Hiroki Kuroda, and ahead of Ivan Nova. If Michael Pineda makes the rotation and pitches like he did in the 2011 season when he was an All-Star as a rookie for the Mariners then that will make the rotation even deeper. This acquisition is great news for the Yankees because they couldn’t go into the season with question marks in two spots of their rotation. The Yankees need Sabathia to bounce back from his sub-par season that saw him finish with a 4.78 ERA. He should be able to based on his previous stellar pitching. It will be important for him to increase his velocity a little from where it was last season.
The Yankees have had the best off season in baseball and they needed to make the signings that they have since they missed the playoffs last season. They will not be below the $189 million threshold as a result of this signing, but they saved A-Rod’s contract for this season and contending for the World Series is more important than those monetary benefits.
Here is a video of Tanaka showing off his many plus pitches during a game last season for the Golden Eagles: