Masahiro Tanaka made his Spring Training debut to a large crowd and received rave reviews on Saturday, something he will have to do a lot more since he is the New York Yankees most crucial player. Tanaka is facing an immense amount of pressure in an uncertain starting rotation with a $155 million contract. Expectations are through the roof for the Japanese rookie despite never having appeared in a Major League Baseball game.
The Yankees were heading into the offseason with a legitimately subpar rotation. Staff ace CC Sabathia was coming off his worst season ever with career worsts of 13 losses and a 4.78 ERA. Hiroki Kuroda is still solid at the advanced age of 39, and Ivan Nova is inconsistent. Once heralded prospect Michael Pineda set the league on fire with the Seattle Mariners before coming to New York in a trade, but now cannot seem to get healthy. The Yankees spent roughly $300 million on hitters in Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann and Carlos Beltran, but Tanaka was their most pivotal acquirement of the offseason.
Tanaka debuted in spring against the Philadelphia Phillies and recorded three strikeouts over two scoreless innings.
“I was nervous, but it was a good nervous,” said Tanaka after the game according to Andrew Marchand of ESPN. Tanaka also gave up a pair of singles and did not walk a batter.
No Yankee is more pivotal to the team’s success than Tanaka because his performance will go the longest way from making a good team into a great team. The roster is full of veterans, some much older than others. Many of them have big question marks, even the three aforementioned hitters the Yankees acquired this offseason have their big question marks, but the 25-year-old Tanaka absolutely has to pan out and stabilize a shaky rotation in order for the Yankees to fulfill any possible World Series aspirations.
Tanaka is a difficult guy to project. Previous Japanese pitchers have had mixed results in the league. The last pitcher to come overseas amidst such an extraordinary amount of hype was Red Sox signee Daisuke Matsuzaka, he of the rubber arm and the mythical gyroball. Matsuzaka posted a few good years, but he never harnessed his control and eventually succumbed to injuries that likely could have been seen coming given his herculean workload during his Japan years. Tanaka too has a ghastly amount of innings on his young right arm, which is something to be monitored.
When the Yankees acquired Tanaka, general manager Brian Cashman pegged him as a third starter. Paying $155 million for a guy who just went 24-0 overseas better add up to being a bit more than a reliable No. 3 in the rotation. Tanaka is praised more for his control and overall pitching prowess than his stuff, and will need to rely on guile and grit to succeed.
Tanaka is the Yankees most crucial player due to the added luxury he brings as a late offseason signee. Despite not being equipped with fellow Japanese pitcher Yu Darvish’s otherworldly pitching arsenal, Tanaka is going to have to find a way to be a little more than a third starter if the Yankees are going to throw down in the vaunted AL East.
By Justin Hussong