In signing international sensation Masahiro Tanaka to a 7-year, $155 million deal recently, the New York Yankees have just given out the second largest contract to a free agent pitcher in the history of Major League Baseball (MLB). That is not a bad haul for a player who has yet to throw a single Major League pitch.
Tanaka, 25, has stayed afloat at the top of the offseason baseball rumors for months, with multiple sources linking him to various teams for various, and always exorbitant sums of money. Perhaps not coincidentally, the only pitcher who has received a contract worth more overall value is C.C. Sabathia, a now teammate of Tanaka’s.
Spending sprees are hardly new for the Yankees. Tanaka’s signing will, most likely, be the final touch of an offseason that saw the iconic franchise spend a total of over $400 million in the free agent market acquiring Jacoby Ellsbury ($153 million), Brian McCann ($85 million), and Carlos Beltran ($45 million). Added to all these inflated numbers is the contract the organization is still obligated to pay Alex Rodriguez, baseball’s fallen hero, another $86 million over the next four seasons.
Fortunately for the Bronx Bombers, the organization’s purse strings are always open and money has rarely ever proven to be an object. Curiously, they did refrain from retaining their own homegrown superstar, Robinson Cano, who hit the free agent market for the first time this offseason. Instead of locking up Cano, they allowed him to bolt to the west coast in favor of a $240 million offer made by the Seattle Mariners.
Despite the seemingly excessive dollar amounts the Yankees have thrown around of late, the addition of Tanaka does make sense. Sabathia is coming off a down season in which he posted a career worst 4.78 ERA and surrendered over a hit an inning more than he has averaged per season historically. Long-time rotation stalwart Andy Pettitte decided to hang it up for good at the end of the 2013 season, as did all-time saves leader Mariano Rivera. With the team in something of a transition phase, bringing in a young, potentially top-notch player in Tanaka could inject some new lifeblood on a team with an aging core.
As for what to expect from Tanaka, there is certainly a precedent when it comes to pitchers transitioning from Japan. Most recently, the Texas Rangers imported Yu Darvish, himself a star in the Japanese League before coming over stateside, and appear to have a rotation anchor for years to come.
On the flip side of that coin, the Boston Red Sox weren’t nearly as successful with their own international splash, Daisuke Matsuzaka. While impressive in his 2007 rookie campaign, Matsuzaka eventually succumbed to control problems that all but forced him out of the game until a recent successful comeback bid with the New York Mets last season.
Tanaka will have high expectations to shoulder immediately, and the pressure will be on as he pitches for one of baseball’s most storied franchises under the microscope of an unforgiving media market. While some teams would be crippled for years if a $155 million investment went bad, the Yankees can afford to shrug it off in the worst case scenario. Luckily for them, a player with Tanaka’s talent seems very unlikely to allow that worst case scenario to occur.
by Spencer Hendricks