In the end, of course it was the Yankees. However much money the Los Angeles Dodgers spend, however many championships the Boston Red Sox win, however much analytical might the Tampa Bay Rays wield, when it comes to lavishing players with the unbeatable combination of tradition, lifestyle and goo-gobs of cash, no team can match the New York Yankees, the half-billion-dollar kings of the 2014 offseason.
Masahiro Tanaka agreed to a seven-year, $155 million contract with the Yankees on Wednesday morning, ending a feverish month in which the 25-year-old right-handed starter from Japan received the sort of deal reserved for a longtime star in the major leagues, not someone who hasn't thrown a single pitch outside of his homeland. The deal, first reported by Fox Sports, includes an opt-out clause after four seasons, which would place Tanaka square back into the market that went so wild for him this year.
Ultimately, the Yankees needed Tanaka more than the Dodgers and Chicago Cubs and Arizona Diamondbacks, and for that they smashed through their self-imposed goal of cutting their payroll beneath the $189 million luxury-tax threshold. Even with Alex Rodriguez's suspension saving them $21 million, the Yankees' offseason bonanza ensured the pipe dream of Operation 189 would go down in spectacular fashion. It brought their offseason spending total to $491 million for nine free agents.
Between the $155 million salary and the $20 million posting fee, the Yankees invested in Tanaka the exact same amount of money the Seattle Mariners needed to lock up Cy Young winner Felix Hernandez, $5 million less than the Detroit Tigers heaped on Cy Young winner Justin Verlander. To go into this monetary stratosphere, and offer Tanaka all the leverage possible with an opt-out no less, said three things: The Yankees love Tanaka, their concerns about his heavy pitch counts in Japan are minimal and, most important, they believe he is worth more to them than anyone else because of the marginal win curve.
The latter point is by far the most important. When a team nears the cusp of playoff contention, wins become eminently more valuable because they can mean the difference between an October drenched in champagne or one lazing on the couch. The Yankees, because of their starting-pitching deficiency, were the very definition of a team in search of an extra three, four, maybe five wins.
Considering the Yankees' luxurious offseason, anything short of a playoff appearance this year and beyond would register as a failure, at least by their standards. Among the $175 million for Tanaka, the $153 million for center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury, the $85 million for catcher Brian McCann, the $45 million for outfielder Carlos Beltran and the assorted seven-figure sums for varying pieces and parts, the Yankees remain the undisputed make-it-rain champions of the sporting world.
Between the Tanaka contract and last week's $215 million extension for Clayton Kershaw, the divide between large and small markets is only intensifying. Whereas the stated intentions of the new posting system was to allow all teams a crack at the best players by capping the transfer fee at only $20 million, everybody understood the fallacy therein: This was only going to embolden the rich teams to blow away the game's relative impoverished. Maybe 10 teams can take on a $20 million-plus-a-year contract and maintain the sort of payroll balance that doesn't leave them prone to ineptitude with one snap of an ulnar collateral ligament.
The Yankees play this advantage for everything it is worth. They've perfected their sales pitch, and for Tanaka to bring perhaps the best split-fingered fastball in the world to the Bronx not only says that he bought it but that he bought into the responsibility of being a Yankee. Because that's what it is: the tradition, the lifestyle and the cash are all responsibilities ladeled upon the simple act of playing the game, which everybody knows is far from simple.
If Tanaka is everything the Yankees believe, he can fulfill that and much more. Top Yankees officials long have been enamored of Tanaka. One source familiar with their plans said were the posting system not changed, they would have bid at least $75 million for the exclusive rights to negotiate with Tanaka. Give the Yankees this much: They're an eminently self-aware team, and they recognize their inability to develop any impact starting pitching left them prone enough to plunk down $25 million a year for somebody with zero major league innings.
Which is simultaneously repulsive to small-market teams, horrifying to American League East foes and indicative of baseball today. This is the Yankees' and Dodgers' and Red Sox's world, and the other 27 teams are living in it. And it is phenomenal for baseball.
Because as long as there are financial leviathans, there will be villains, and as long as there are villains, there is the triumph of conquering them. For so long, baseball has tried to achieve this NFL-spun ideal of parity. No. Please, no. Parity is boring. Even if the divide has gotten excessive in baseball and needs tinkering to redistribute some of the wealth during the next collective-bargaining agreement, the existence of a chasm is not the worst thing for the sport.
As the game shows again and again, spending does not equal winning. It helps. It mitigates mistakes. It gives access to talent. In Tanaka's case, spending lends the Yankees a far better chance of winning this season. A CC Sabathia-Tanaka-Hiroki Kuroda-Ivan Nova-David Phelps/Michael Pineda rotation looks a whole lot better than one minus Tanaka and with both of the final two.
It was going to be this way because it made too much sense. The Dodgers never were all that keen on Tanaka, certainly not $150 million keen. The Cubs were happy to let rumors about their interest run wild even if the truth is that Tom Ricketts never, ever was going to spend the money necessary to get him. The Diamondbacks just couldn't compete with the Yankees, though considering the financial box in which it would have placed them for years, maybe it was for the best.
The Yankees were not going to lose out on Masahiro Tanaka because of a truth everyone in baseball knows, a truth that chaps plenty and turns the Yankees into the monolith they are: If they want something, they get it.