After a Thursday report in the New York Times indicated that Rakuten Golden Eagles pitcher Masahiro Tanaka will likely not be allowed to challenge Major League hitters next season, the New York Yankees are one of many teams scrambling to revise their offseason plans now that the market’s top pitcher is possibly unavailable until next offseason, at the earliest.
Tanaka, who recorded a 24-0 record while pitching to a 1.27 ERA, could have exceeded the $51.7 million posting fee paid for Texas Rangers pitcher Yu Darvish had a new agreement between Major League Baseball and Nippon Professional Baseball capping posting fees at $20 million not been reached.
Instead of bringing the maximum fee back to Rakuten, it appears that Tanaka is destined to dominate Japanese hitters for at least one more season. The good news for the 24-year-old pitcher is that he becomes a free agent after the 2015 season, ensuring that he will have to spend just two more years in Japan, at most.
In all likelihood, Rakuten will likely post Tanaka next offseason, take their $20 million fee right before his walk year, and move on. However, they could elect to hold onto Tanaka for the 2015 season as well, knowing full well they would get no payment in return as he hits free agency and crosses the Pacific Ocean to try his luck in the Major Leagues.
For the New York Yankees, moving on during this offseason may not be so easy. Reports even towards the end of the season indicated that baseball’s richest franchise was preparing to break the bank for Tanaka, who would have slotted into the front of a weak starting rotation. Without being able to make a run at Tanaka, the Yankees will need to find another way to fill a shaky rotation that includes C.C. Sabathia, Ivan Nova, Hiroki Kuroda, and Michael Pineda.
Each of these four pitchers had their fair share of disappointments last season. Sabathia is an aging left-hander who fought through injuries only to struggle mightily last season. Nova faced such challenges early on in 2013 that he was demoted to Triple-A, although he was a solid pitcher in the second half of the season. Nova’s strong second half made up for Kuroda, who was great early in the year, but appeared to hit a wall after the All-Star Break. The rotation’s fourth potential member, Michael Pineda, has not thrown a pitch in the Major Leagues since 2011 after undergoing shoulder surgery.
In correcting this year’s rotation, the answer is not another long-term contract thrown at a second-or-third starter type such as Matt Garza, Ervin Santana or Ubaldo Jimenez. All three of those pitchers are seeking long-term deals, none of which are viable for long-term success, especially with Tanaka guaranteed to be available within two years.
Worse yet, each of those pitchers have red flags of their own. Jimenez, 29, is the youngest of the trio, but is just one year removed from a season where he led the American League with 17 losses. Garza, 30, has elbow problems and is reportedly seeking four or five years to sign with a team. Santana, 31, is the oldest of the trio, has not had a winning record since 2011, and is a fly ball pitcher similar to Phil Hughes.
This year’s free agent market may not yield a solid piece for the Yankees in years to come. Instead of throwing millions of guaranteed dollars and a long-term contract at one of the market’s three best remaining pitchers, internal options or veterans on short-term deals may be the best options for the Bronx.
Adam Warren, David Phelps, and Vidal Nuno could each serve as internal candidates for a final rotation spot (assuming that Pineda remains healthy enough to take one spot). While their upside is limited, this would be the most cost-effective option.
The Yankees could also choose to take a shot in the dark with a veteran option or two on a minimal contract, much like they did with Freddy Garcia and Bartolo Colon in recent years. Former All-Stars Johan Santana and Roy Oswalt have been two names thrown around as a potential candidate to head to Tampa with the Yankees this spring. ESPN’s Wally Matthews also suggests that someone such as a Paul Maholm could be a good insurance policy for the two injury-prone veterans.
Signing someone like Santana, Oswalt, or Maholm will not necessarily solidify the Yankees rotation, and it most certainly will not make fans feel any better heading to Spring Training, but it might be the team’s best option to improve their rotation for this season while being able to break the bank for Tanaka in the future.