Jobu is putting his foot down. The Yankees have to sign Japanese hurler Masahiro Tanaka.
Most hardcore Yankees fans will know who this post is about just from the headline. In recent years, the Yankees have been afraid of signing foreign pitchers, especially those from Japan. In this post we’ll talk about the reasons behind this reluctance, and I’ll tell you why it’s time to throw all that out the window and go all in on Japan’s latest import, Masahiro Tanaka.
For those of you wondering who Tanaka is, no, he’s a the former WWE wrestler. That’s Pat Tanaka (on the far right, with Mr. Fuji and his tag team partner Sato). He’s also not a former fictitious Cleveland Indians outfielder. That’s Isuro “Kamikaze” Tanaka (Jobu remembers him, and his marbles, very fondly, though). No. This Tanaka actually might be the best pitcher to ever come out of Japan, and he is being posted by his Japanese team, the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles. That means he’ll be, essentially, up for grabs to the highest bidder. Before we get into all that though, let’s talk history.
As the great Franklin Delano Roosevelt once said, “We have nothing to fear, but fear itself.” In recent years, that fear has basically made the Yankees non-factors when it comes to signing Japanese pitchers. So just where does that fear come from? Well, it comes from a series of horrible experiences that have seemingly left Brian Cashman and the Yankees brass traumatized.
It all started back in 1996, when the Yankees paid $350,000 to the Seibu Lions and then ponied up a $1.5MM signing bonus on a minor league deal for a Japanese hurler named Katsuhiro Maeda. Known simply as Kats, Maeda presented a pretty imposing figure with his 6’2″, 220 lb frame and alleged 98 mph fastball. Maeda also had a reputation as a bit of a character, and his orange dyed hair earned him the nickname “The Japanese Dennis Rodman.a” Maeda’s talent never fully materialized in the states, and he never made it out of AAA, finishing his minor league career at 18-21 with a 4.69 ERA.
While Maeda was beginning his career, the Yankees dipped over to Japan again… although it was via the San Diego Padres. You see, the Padres had purchased the contract of Japanese superstar, and the man who had thrown the fastest pitch in Japanese baseball history (98mph officially), Hideki Irabu from the Chiba Lotte Marines. This was actually a very controversial transaction, because the other major league teams were hoping to enter the bidding for the Japanese superstar. The fallout from this bold move by San Diego is the posting system we have in place today, but we’ll get into that later. Anyway, Irabu refused to play for the Padres and demanded to play for the Yankees. Eventually, a deal was worked out and Irabu was sent to New York with minor leaguer Gordon Amerson and Homer Bush, in exchange for Ruben Rivera, Rafael Medina (at the time, big time prospects) and $3MM.
Irabu pitched just eight minor league games for the Yankees before joining the rotation on July 10, 1997. I was actually at that game, and I still count it as one of the most exciting games I’ve ever been to (outranked only, off the top of my head, by the Jim Abbott no-hitter and my first playoff game, which came in 2012). Irabu really burst onto the scene against the Detroit Tigers. He used 99 pitches to get through 6.2 innings, allowing 5 hits, 4 BBs and 2 ER while striking out 9 men. I remember every two-strike count got the entire stadium on its feet, and we all exploded with cheers for every K. It was truly exhilarating. Unfortunately, Irabu failed to really fulfill all the promise that came from his Japanese reputation and his debut. He struggled to a 7.07 ERA the rest of that season, and although he wasn’t as bad as we all seem to remember, he never posted better than 13 wins and a 4.06 ERA in the Bronx, and he was gone by the 2000 season, traded to the Expos for Christian Parker, Ted Lilly and Jake Westbrook. The Yankees were hoping Irabu would be the next Hideo Nomo, but it just didn’t work out.
The final Japanese straw came in 2006. The Yankees were outbid by the Boston Red Sox for another superstar, Daisuke Matsuzaka and, in a knee-jerk reaction, signed the second best Japanese pitcher available, Kei Igawa (pictured above). What a mistake that was. Igawa put up some solid numbers in Japan, but they had declined the few years before the Yankees bid $26MM and then gave him a five year, $20MM deal. Igawa actually cracked the Yankees rotation when the team broke camp in April 2007, but his time in the Bronx was horrendous, and he was eventually sent down. He made a couple of appearances in 2008 too, but was even worse. He played out the rest of his contract as the winningest pitcher in AAA Scranton/Wilkes Barre history. Huzah.
The Yankees have let those bad experiences cloud their judgment when it comes to not only Japanese, but most other Asian pitchers as well. Their bid of $15MM for Yu Darvish prior to the 2012 season might as well have been $15. He went to the Rangers, and their winning bid topped $50MM. I don’t even think they tried to bid on current Dodger Hyun-Jin Ryu from South Korea. Both of those guys would be pretty nice to have now, wouldn’t they? Darvish struck out 277 guys for the Rangers last season, and Ryu had a 3.00 ERA for the Dodgers. Another thing that should motivate the Yankees to sign Tanaka is the success Hiroki Kuroda. He has shown the Yankees that Asian pitchers can succeed in the bigs first-hand, if they weren’t convinced by Darvish and Ryu.
However, even if those three gentlemen hadn’t experienced as much success as they’ve had, the Yankees should still be looking at Tanaka. Simply stated, the guy can pitch. Did you watch the video above? At 6’2″ and 205 lbs, he’s got an MLB body. This is something that Asian pitchers can’t always boast. He features a low-90s fastball that can touch 96 mph. He also has two secondary pitches that scouts have thus far been impressed with, including a nasty splitter. The one knock on him is that his fastball sits on a flat plane, which makes it easier to hit than one with more movement. b Although results aren’t always the most important thing when it comes to foreign pitchers because they don’t face MLB caliber competition, it’s pretty hard to ignore what Tanaka has been doing in Japan. His ERA has been 2.50 or lower in each of the last five seasons, and under 1.87 the last three. Yes… three years in a row with a sub-2.00 ERA. That will turn some heads, won’t it? His strikeouts rate dropped to a career low of 7.7 per 9 innings last season, but he arguably had his best results, going 20-0 with a 1.24 ERA. Those are video game numbers right there.
The title of this section is pretty self explanatory. The Yankees will not be the only team pursuing Tanaka this off-season. You can expect every big market team, and some mid-market ones, to be in on the Japanese right-hander. Any team that doesn’t bid on this guy should just fold up their tents and go home, because their fans will be very angry with them. As the posting system stands right now, only one team can win the bidding, and exclusive negotiation rights, with Tanaka. However, the posting system might undergo some changes this off-season that would allow the top three bidding teams to negotiate with a posted player. You can look at that two different ways. It either hurts the Yankees because a bid that would give them exclusive rights will no longer do that, or it can help them if one crazy team decides to outbid the field by $100MM.
I wish I could tell you that I am very confident that the Yankees will get this done and sign Tanaka this off-season, but it’s hard to say. The $189MM plan looms over Brian Cashman’s head. If Alex Rodriguez gets suspended, that would free up a lot of money for Tanaka. If the Yankees have to pay A-Rod’s full salary for 2014, and they choose to sign Robinson Cano, then I’m not sure how tanaka fits. I know that, technically, the bid money does not count against the payroll, this is still a newly money-conscious team that might not be willing to go all out. Rumor has it that the Yankees are in it to win it, as far as Tanaka is concerned, which I hope is accurate.
Yankees fans, start praying.
Featured image courtesy of: (Koji Watanabe/Getty)
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