COMMENTARY | The New York Yankees will need to bolster their starting rotation for 2014, given that Andy Pettitte is retiring (again), Hiroki Kuroda is a free agent (again), Phil Hughes is going away (thank goodness), and Michael Pineda and Manny Banuelos are still health questions.
One arm that could fill the bill is 24-year-old Japanese right-hander Masahiro Tanaka. How good is Tanaka?
He was 20-0 with a 1.24 ERA this season for the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles in Nippon Professional Baseball's Japan Pacific League. His WHIP was 0.934 and he struck out 155 hitters in 181 innings over 23 starts.
Yeah, he's going to have to be docked for those three no-decisions.
But, seriously, George A. King III of the New York Post wrote on Oct. 10 that the Yankees are expected to make a big play for Tanaka, who some talent evaluators say is the best pitcher to ever come out of Japan.
"He is better than (Yu) Darvish because he is a strike thrower," a scout told King. "Overall, Darvish's stuff might be a little bit better, but this guy knows how to pitch. He is like Kuroda, he has a lot of guts.
"He throws four pitches, but when it gets to [crunch] time, it's fastball and splitter."
Tanaka was clocked at 95 mph on that fastball late in games this year, and he also throws an overhand curve ball that comes to the plate at about 75 mph.
Tanaka debuted for Rakuten as an 18-year-old in 2007 and is 95-35 in seven seasons with a 2.32 ERA and 1.111 WHIP in 1,284 innings and 170 appearances, 168 of them starts.
He is durable, completing 52 games and tossing 18 shutouts, including six in 2011, when he posted a career-best WHIP of 0.875.
The Yankees have traveled this route before. Once upon a time, the late Hideki Irabu was called the "Nolan Ryan of Japan." The Yankees paid $12.5 million for Irabu in 1997. He went 29-20 over parts of three seasons in New York with a 4.80 ERA and 1.362 WHIP before being dealt to the Montreal Expos in December 1999 for a package of minor leaguers that included Jake Westbrook and Ted Lilly.
And Irabu would be considered a success compared to lefty Kei Igawa, who cost the Yankees $46 million and in return went 2-4 with a 6.66 ERA and 1.758 WHIP in 16 games and 13 starts covering 71.2 innings in 2007-08. He became a free agent in November 2011 and returned to Japan, pitching for the Orix Buffaloes the past two seasons.
The Boston Red Sox are reportedly also going to be in aggressively on Tanaka. Rakuten is expected to get $60 million or so for posting Tanaka, and the team winning the posting bid would then have exclusive rights to negotiate with the pitcher.
If the team and Tanaka can't come to terms, he simply returns to Rakuten for another season. That is because Tanaka isn't eligible for free agency.
Posting can't happen before Nov. 1, which is Tanaka's 25th birthday, but could be delayed. Rakuten is in the Japan Series and the seventh game would be Nov. 3 if the series goes the distance.
Tanaka would be a pricey acquisition for the Yankees, but if he's really equal to or better than Texas Rangers ace Darvish, he'd be worth the cost for a Bronx Bombers squad that is in the unfamiliar position of being on the outside looking in at the postseason this October.
Phil Watson is a freelance commentator and journalist who covers the New York Yankees, Brooklyn Nets and New York Giants for the Yahoo Contributor Network. He is also editor of brewers101.com and holds an editorial position at HoopsHabit.com.
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- New York Yankees
- Masahiro Tanaka
- Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles