Masahiro Tanaka, the 25-year-old Japanese right-hander who was 24-0 for the Rakuten Golden Eagles last season, has agreed to a seven-year, $155 million contract with the New York Yankees, sources said Wednesday morning. Tanaka can opt out after four years, at which point he will have made $88 million.
As part of the new rules governing the system that allows Japanese players to sign with a U.S. club, the Yankees will pay an additional $20 million to Rakuten.
For $175 million, then, the Yankees acquired the best starting pitcher in a thin free-agent market. Due to his 53-9 record over the past three seasons, an ERA in that time well under two, a clever split-fingered fastball and his youth, Tanaka is perhaps the most hyped pitcher to come from Japan since Hideki Irabu (to the Yankees) more than 15 years ago. Many scouts believe he will be somewhat less effective, however, than Yu Darvish, who in the past two seasons with the Texas Rangers is 29-18 and has become the ace of that staff.
Tanaka had drawn heavy interest from across the game. The Los Angeles Dodgers, Chicago Cubs, Arizona Diamondbacks and Chicago White Sox, along with the Yankees, were especially involved. He had 30 days – until Friday – to sign with a U.S. team, and in that time met with several clubs in Los Angeles.
While counting their dollars against the luxury tax, the Yankees were the favorites to land Tanaka, in part because of their financial wherewithal and in part because their starting rotation was severely lacking. Presumably, Tanaka would slot behind incumbent ace CC Sabathia, who, at 33, is coming off the worst season of his career. Hiroki Kuroda, sturdy and reliable, will turn 39 in February. Ivan Nova follows.
If the Yankees were going to make anything of their previous winter signings – Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann, Carlos Beltran and Kuroda cost them nearly $300 million – and the suspension of Alex Rodriguez (which saved them about $23 million), then they would have to add starting pitching. Questions remain regarding who will play third base and second base, whether Derek Jeter, going on 40 and coming off injury, can be an everyday shortstop, and then whether David Robertson can be an adequate closer. But the rotation, assuming a bounce-back year from a leaner Sabathia, should be better, as long as Tanaka adapts to the U.S. game and routines as the Yankees believe he will.
Known in Japan by the nickname "Ma-kun," Tanaka is a veteran of Olympic and World Baseball Classic competition. He has twice led Nippon Professional Baseball in wins, ERA and complete games, and in 2011 led the league in strikeouts. Also, he has twice been named the league's top starting pitcher.
Still, the transition to the U.S. game has been difficult for some well-regarded Japanese pitchers. And while Tanaka seeks to follow in the footsteps of Hideo Nomo, Hiroki Kuroda and Darvish, there is a risk he will not adapt. Daisuke Matsuzaka had one exceptional season for the Boston Red Sox. He cost the Red Sox more than $100 million in posting fees and salary. The Yankees spent more than $46 million on Kei Igawa in 2006. He won two big-league games. Irabu, who signed a $12.8 million contract with the Yankees (after being traded from the San Diego Padres) before the current posting system was developed, never seemed comfortable with the U.S. game and retired with a losing record.
The Yankees are betting Tanaka has the talent and temperament to stand at or near the top of their rotation. While he lacks the power of Darvish, Tanaka does throw a fastball in the mid-90s. He has an uncommonly good split-fingered fastball and an effective slider. Tanaka threw significant innings as a young pitcher – 186 1/3 as an 18-year-old and a career-high 226 1/3 at 22 – and often threw more pitches than his U.S. counterparts, though that seems of little concern to most scouts.
And, certainly, that's of no concern to the Yankees, who granted Tanaka the fifth-largest contract for a pitcher in history, behind Clayton Kershaw's $215 million, Justin Verlander's $180 million, Felix Hernandez's $175 million and Sabathia's $160 million.
Tanaka will make $22 million in each of the first six years of the contract unless he exercises the opt-out clause after four seasons. The seventh year is worth $23 million. The average annual value of the deal – slightly more than $22 million – likely pushes the Yankees beyond their stated goal of a $189 million payroll, and could cost them approximately $100 million over the next three years.
The larger issue was an 85-win 2013 season. They missed the playoffs for the second time since 1994, finishing 12 games behind the AL East champion Boston Red Sox.