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New York Yankees: Masahiro Tanaka a Must-Have for the Rotation

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COMMENTARY | With the New York Yankees determined to get their payroll under $189 million to avoid the luxury tax, Japanese starter Masahiro Tanaka should be their top new acquisition.

While the sweepstakes for Robinson Cano will be the biggest decision of the offseason, the rotation is the most glaring area of need since it could see a 60-percent turnover.

The great coup with Tanaka is that he is not a free agent. In a grand Japanese tradition, teams must submit a bid for the right to negotiate with the ballyhooed pitcher, and the winning posting fee could exceed $50 million. Most importantly, for the Yankees, the money paid for the bid does not count on the payroll, creating significant luxury-tax savings.

Turning Japanese

Yu Darvish is the most comparable recent example to Tanaka. The Texas Rangers won negotiating rights for him with a bid of nearly $52 million, and they inked the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighter to a six-year deal worth at least $56 million and up to $60 million. Clearly, the contract would have been higher were it not for the posting fee that preceded it, so the bid money essentially resulted in a high-value contract.

That same offseason, free agent C.J. Wilson received a five-year, $77.5 million contract from the Los Angeles Angels, and Mark Buehrle got $58 million over four years from the Miami Marlins. Suffice to say, the Rangers got the best bargain.

There are always worries about whether or not a Japanese player can make the transition, but Darvish is clearly a bona-fide big leaguer. When he made the move across the Pacific, he had five straight seasons with a sub-2.00 ERA in Japan and eclipsed 200 innings in four of those campaigns. Darvish was sterling in 2013 for Texas, going 13-9 with a 2.83 ERA and a staggering 277 Ks in 209.2 IP.

Tanaka does not have that same strikeout prowess, but he did go 24-0 for the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles last season, including eight complete games and two shutouts. Not too shabby! He struck out 183 batters and yielded just 32 walks in 212 innings. His 1.27 ERA in 2013 matched his 2011 season, in which he went 19-5 with 14 complete games and six shutouts. However, those are the only two seasons that Tanaka eclipsed 200 innings.

The Yankees have their work cut out for them. The Los Angeles Dodgers, Chicago Cubs, San Francisco Giants, Texas Rangers and Boston Red Sox are just a few teams with deep pockets who could also target Tanaka. But Hal Steinbrenner seems determined to prove he's not afraid to spend money despite his utterances about frugality, and the team needs a quality starter.

The Free-Agent Market

The most viable starters on the market are Matt Garza, Ricky Nolasco, Ervin Santana, Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Feldman, an underwhelming bunch. Ex-Yankee Bartolo Colon and the injury-prone Josh Johnson would be more intriguing targets to fill out the rotation if they come at a lower wage. Other competent options like Paul Maholm and Mike Pelfrey would be even cheaper.

Last year, the Chicago Cubs made a move that seemed straight out of "Brewster's Millions," bestowing a preposterous four-year, $52 million deal on Edwin Jackson. Now every mediocre free-agent starter, no matter how undeserving, will be looking $13 million per year.

An additional complication in signing free agents is that general manager Brian Cashman does not know how much the team must pay Alex Rodriguez next season. They await a decision on the appeal of A-Rod's 211-game suspension, which should be in by Christmas. Even if the suspension is reduced, the Yankees would not have to pay him for however many games he is suspended, potentially saving them upward of $20 million and making the goal of reducing the payroll much more feasible.

Holes in the Rotation


Andy Pettitte retired, and homer-happy Phil Hughes does not have a future in New York. The Yankees are hoping Hiroki Kuroda chooses to return to them instead of bolting for Japan. Arbitration-eligible Ivan Nova struggles with occasional inconsistency, but he looks set to be a part of the Yankees' rotation for at least the next few years. CC Sabathia is signed through 2016, and his dominance is in rapid decline. Even if Kuroda comes back for another season, the Yankees must acquire at least one solid free-agent pitcher, and Tanaka is the most attractive option relative to the annual salary he would command.

All told, only Nova and Sabathia are locked in for 2014. If Michael Pineda actually pitches next year, something he has not done since 2011, it would be an incredible boon, but he will be a huge question mark as he enters arbitration. Regardless, David Phelps, Adam Warren and Vidal Nuno would be potential back-end starters.


The Yankees are not suddenly stingy, but perhaps they are getting wiser. Cashman seeks flexibility, and there is no need to mortgage the future with six- and 10-year contracts for a player that will be playing at this level for only three or four more years. The Boston Red Sox won the World Series but did not target any big fish in last year's free-agent market. They went after Shane Victorino, Mike Napoli and Ryan Dempster, and they received tremendous value in return. The Bronx Bombers may be swearing off their luxury spending sprees in favor of pursuing players that offer more value for the money. And Tanaka, like Darvish, will end up as the best value among all the free-agent pitchers.

Like Isuro Tanaka in "Major League II," Masahiro Tanaka will prove whether or not these Yankees have the marbles to splash the cash and win the bidding war.

Sean Hojnacki writes about baseball and football for Time Warner and basketball for Bleacher Report. His writing has also appeared on The Classical, Salon.com and briefly on Twitter. He lives in Jersey City, NJ with his wife and a cat named after Melky Cabrera.

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