Major League Baseball’s postseason has yet to conclude, but already the focus for Hal Steinbrenner and senior New York Yankees officials is on rebuilding what once was one of the greatest dynasties in professional sports. With the “Core Four” down to just one active member, and perennial MVP candidate Robinson Cano seemingly willing to try the open market, the Yankees need to make a splash similar to the one made in the offseason prior to their last World Series title in 2009.
With several holes to fill on the roster and many others being created by overspending, baseball’s richest team needs to get creative in their ways to make a big, but smart, splash in the free agent market. Surely the team would love to see Cano return to the Bronx, and perhaps add a big bat elsewhere in the lineup, but at what cost? Right now, the Yankees’ biggest problems start on the mound, where they are sure to return just C.C. Sabathia and Ivan Nova from the 2013 starting rotation. Now factor in that Sabathia endured a season full of struggles and Ivan Nova was streaky as he worked to realize his potential, and this team desperately must focus on finding pitching help on the open market.
Phil Hughes is mercifully gone from New York as he becomes the only free agent pitcher with Major League experience on the right side of thirty. Michael Pineda, who was acquired prior to the 2012 season, has yet to throw a regular season pitch for the Yankees due to shoulder problems. Andy Pettitte has headed off into retirement for the second time, and this time, he will not be coming back. Hiroki Kuroda may join him, and if not, certainly could leave and head to a team closer to his native Japan.
However, the team may have to look no further than Kuroda’s home country in order to find their future ace: Masahiro Tanaka, the Rakuten Golden Eagles’ star who will be placed in the posting system this offseason after recording a 22-0 record with a 1.23 ERA in the Pacific League’s regular season. Of course, that is only a viable plan if Cashman and the Steinbrenner’s are willing to spend the money necessary to outbid teams such as the San Francisco Giants, Texas Rangers, and Boston Red Sox to land his negotiating rights.
The Yankees have had terrible luck with Japanese pitchers in the past. Though the two were frequently compared when he were in Japan, no one mistook Hideki Irabu for Roger Clemens when the team signed him except for perhaps in their wildest dreams. Then the Yankees wasted $20 million on Kei Igawa, who made just 16 big league appearances before flaming out and finishing his five-year contract in the New York Yankees farm system, pitching in over 100 games while never making it back to the major leagues. But Tanaka is different. He is most often compared to Texas Rangers star Yu Darvish, and yet many believe that it will be Tanaka, not Darvish, who will be the best pitcher to ever come out of Japan.
“He is better than Darvish because he is a strike thrower,’’ one scout told the New York Post. “Overall, Darvish’s stuff might be a little bit better, but this guy knows how to pitch. He is like Kuroda, he has a lot of guts. He throws four pitches but when it gets to [stone]-cutting time, it’s fastball and splitter.’’
The 24-year-old star has very good command of a five-pitch arsenal highlighted by a high-80s splitter that some scouts have referred to as the best splitter in the world. His four-seam fastball typically ranges from 91-95 MPH, though he mixes in a two-seamer as games progress. Most impressive is his ability to sustain velocity deep into games – he has been known to touch as high as 97 MPH after 100 pitches. Tanaka also sports an 82-85 MPH slider that has the potential to be a plus pitch, and has been known to mix in a few mid-70s curveballs.
Of course, the major concern with the Yankees signing the Japanese pitcher is the transition to pitching in New York City. In the Bronx, the demands placed on players for immediate production is so intense, it has caused even the best of veteran major league pitchers to struggle initially, and there is no telling how much that demand could overwhelm a rookie pitcher who has significant money invested in him. It certainly overwhelmed Irabu and Igawa, who struggled immensely and both flamed out with the Yankees. However, many believe Tanaka is different.
“[Tanaka is] a fiery competitor on the mound,” one American League scout told me. “[He] should have no problems in New York.”
That being said, Tanaka is far from a lock to wind up in New York. The team has sent assistant general manager Billy Eppler and top pro scout Don Wakamatsu to watch Tanaka pitch extensively, but the Blue Jays, Rangers, Giants, and Red Sox have also expressed some level of interest in the star right-hander. The widespread interest in Tanaka could push the posting fee far higher than the previous record fee of $51.7 million paid by the Texas Rangers to secure the negotiating rights to Yu Darvish in 2011.
In fact, Bob Klapisch of the Bergen Record predicts that it would likely cost approximately $60 million to win negotiating rights with the right-hander, and an additional $50 million to $60 million to sign him. As Klapisch indicates, the value of hard-throwing 20-something pitchers has never been higher, and the Yankees have only one of those. Worse yet, there’s no help on the free agent market, as Phil Hughes is the youngest pitcher available at 28 years old, and we know that he will not be back in the Bronx.
The one thing that was proved this past season is the value of talented young pitchers, and right now, is why Yankees need to be all-in for Tanaka when he is posted in November. While the $189 million cap to reset the luxury tax is certainly in play for any contract, it does not include posting fees, thus giving the Yankees free reign to bid as much as they would like. As the top pitcher available this offseason, Tanaka is a necessary piece for the Yankees to pursue if they hope to return to the top of the American League East in 2014 and beyond.