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Yankees Should Target Japan, Lure Masahiro Tanaka to New York

Japan's Tanaka May Be Best Available Pitcher This Offseason

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New York Yankees: Big in Japan
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Masahiro Tanaka.

COMMENTARY | If they hope to compete in 2014, the New York Yankees need to pursue Japanese hurler Masahiro Tanaka and may even benefit from coming changes to the Japanese player posting system.

With Andy Pettitte's retirement and Phil Hughes' impending free agency, the Yankees need starting pitching and, it seems, Tanaka may be the best available arm this offseason. That is, if the Rakuten Golden Eagles post the right-hander, as expected.

Earlier this week, Tanaka (who turns 25 on November 1) won his 16th straight start and improved to 24-0 for the season -- the most wins in Nippon Professional Baseball since 1978. The win against the Orix Buffaloes was his record 28th consecutive decision since August 26, 2012. For the season, he's struck out 183 batters in 212 innings while posting a 1.27 ERA and 0.943 WHIP. (He's also benefit from more than 6 runs of support per nine innings.)

According to Baseball America, Tanaka throws a low-90s fastball that can touch 96 mph. He also throws a slider, curve, changeup, and splitter, the last of which has been described as his strikeout pitch. At least one major-league scout described Tanaka as someone who can strike out batters when he needs to.

"He really knows how to bear down. His slider is his secondary pitcher. We project him as a No. 2 starter for most MLB clubs," the scout told Sports On Earth. MLB Trade Rumors recently tabbed him as the best available free agent pitcher.

Under the current posting system, Tanaka, who has won five straight pitcher of the month awards, could only sign with the major-league team that submits the highest sealed bid for the right to negotiate with him. However, news outlets are reporting that a revised system would allow Tanaka, whose career record is 95-35 (2.32 ERA), to negotiate with the top three clubs that submit bids to negotiate with him.

Although not expected to approach the $51.7 million that the Texas Rangers posted for the rights to negotiate with Yu Darvish, Tanaka's posting fee may exceed $30 million, as the Boston Red Sox, Toronto Blue Jays and Los Angeles Angels have all sent representatives to scout Tanaka.

One good thing for the Yankees is that a posting fee would not count against the team's payroll, which is expected to drop to $189 million this season so New York can avoid a luxury tax hike. Another is that Tanaka may be attracted to the team if general manager Brian Cashman can lure back Hiroki Kuroda for one more year to, perhaps, serve as the young right-hander's mentor. And what Japanese ballplayer wouldn't want the chance to share a locker room with Ichiro Suzuki?

Another plus may be that Tanaka has played with three former Yankees this season (Darrell Rasner, Casey McGehee, and Andruw Jones) and probably sought out their counsel about playing in New York. The team may also benefit from having the only Asian-American manager in MLB history on the payroll, as they've sent former Seattle Mariners skipper and current special assistant GM Don Wakamatsu to Japan to scout Tanaka.

The Yankees have been burned by Japanese pitchers in the past, having posted $26 million for Kei Igawa, who later signed a 5-year, $20 million deal in December 2006 that will go down as one of the worst contracts in Yankees history. There was also the 1997 deal with Hideki Irabu, who signed a 4-year, $12.8 million deal.

However, Tanaka is the best potential free agent pitcher and, it seems, has the potential to emerge as a second or third starting pitcher. New York would be remiss if it didn't try to forget its past signings and try grabbing him.

Howard Z. Unger is a freelance journalist in Brooklyn, New York. For the past 15 years, he has written about sports, media, and popular culture. His work has appeared in The Village Voice, New York Post, and New York Times.

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