After a build-up to rival that of a Star Wars sequel, Japanese ace Masahiro Tanaka has signed with the New York Yankees. The terms: seven years, $155 million dollars -- or about $21.1 million a year -- with an opt out after year four. In a post-Clayton Kershaw world, the terms are almost unexciting, or would be if Tanaka had ever thrown a major league pitch in anger. He will be the eighth pitcher currently making $20 million or more a season (ninth if you round up Adam Wainwright). Overall, his deal is the fifth-largest ever given to any pitcher.
Tanaka, owner of that eye-catching 24-0, 1.27 ERA record in the season just past and a 99-25, 2.30 pitcher overall in seven seasons with the Rakuten Golden Eagles, will become the fourth Japan-born pitcher acquired by the Yankees, but only the third that they'll have broken in on their own -- the most successful by far, Hiroki Kuroda, was already a four-year major league veteran when the Yankees signed him as a free agent in November, 2012. The other two, Hideki Irabu and Kei Igawa, were notable failures.
It should be noted that neither Irabu nor Igawa had numbers anything like Tanaka's. Still, each was highly touted in his own way, and their crashing on takeoff should serve as a warning that success in Japan does not automatically predicate success here.
By now you're probably as sick as I am of hearing pundits pontificate on Tanaka's stuff, his pitches, his workload, and how he compares to Yu Darvish. That he has signed only means that we now know where and in what color uniform he'll begin to answer those questions. If some of the evaluations are correct and Tanaka is more of a command-exploiting Kuroda than a Darvish, well, consider that Kuroda himself, 39 years old this year and coming off a 6.56 ERA in the final quarter of the season, re-signed for $16 million. The marginal cost of signing Tanaka, then, of a pitcher who stands a good chance of throwing 200 innings with a 3.30 ERA, then, is about $5 million a season, and that seems fair given that Tanaka is 14 years younger.
Some commentators have perceived Tanaka's opt-out after year four as a negative in the deal, but there is nothing wrong with a shorter-term deal that allows a reassessment when the player is verging on 30. Sure, the Yankees botched their last two opt-out situations, Alex Rodriguez and CC Sabathia pulling out of their contracts, but this situation is a little different. When a player 30 or older, as both Rodriguez or Sabathia were, opts out of a contract that would have taken them well into their decline phase and says, "Hey, sign me to an extension or I'm outta here," a team should say, "We thank you for your service,"hand them a gold watch, and immediately throw a party, because they've just done you a tremendous favor, saving you from your previous over-commitment. What you don't do is bend over and say, "Yes, sir. One contract taking you until you're 43 coming right up!" If someone wants to give Tanaka another seven years at $30 million per at that point, the Yankees can wish them good luck and whoever the best/youngest pitcher on the market is at that point.
There is always another player. When teams decide that they have to have this exact player and no one else will do, that's when they make self-defeating commitments.
The signing completes a reversal for the Yankees, whose conduct over the last couple of seasons has now been shown to be unnecessarily self-defeating. In the same way you can throw away a year of committed dieting in the space of a few reckless meals (Why, yes, I do think I will have that third slice of cheesecake!), the team inflicted a tedious season on its fans in pursuit of getting the budget beneath the luxury tax threshold only to toss away that goal after a rough season. That said, the Yankees were faced with some difficult choices that required that one-year gap to fix with optimal solutions. That is, signing Brian McCann is preferable to re-upping Russell Martin and as valuable as Nick Swisher can be, giving him a four-year (possibly five-year) deal beginning at 32 was an experiment best observed at a safe remove. The big-name players who went to other teams, such as Josh Hamilton, were likewise fraught with risk.
Still, if the budgetary goals were so easily thrown away, the Yankees could have stopped well short of Hamilton-type dollars and possibly still made the playoffs. Even with all the injuries, with Mark Teixeira, Curtis Granderson, Derek Jeter, and Alex Rodriguez missing the bulk of the season, no catcher to speak of, CC Sabathia pitching like he had just woken up from a long nap, and Phil Hughes rehearsing his Twins box scores, the club still won 85 games. That's still fairly far away from the 92 wins it took to capture an AL Wild Card, but consider that the team went 17-13 in the first month after Rodriguez came off of the disabled list, tantamount to that 92-win pace. Rodriguez hit .294/.384/.477 to that point, before the injuries started pulling him down again, and that was such a reversal from the sub-replacement-level production the team had received at the hot corner that that one improvement alone was enough to swing them from the mediocre .518 team they had been that point into a team that had a chance at a postseason lottery ticket. When Rodriguez faded -- he hit .203/.337/.392 in September -- the team did too.
We've always known that the cost of carrying even one replacement-level player could kill a team dead in a close race, and the Yankees were carrying more than one. Even then, though, they were probably just one player away, one good move the previous offseason, from making a strong run at October. If the commitment to $189 million was so ephemeral, if they were going to do a 180 and spend roughly $500 million the following winter, why tank a whole season? The lesson here is an old one: If you're already that close to the postseason, it's smarter to spend the extra dollars than not -- your Tanakabucks have the potential to pay greater dividends for the Yankees than they would have for (say) the Twins or Cubs.
All of that is in the past now. Tanaka goes on a pile that includes McCann, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Carlos Beltran. Unless he feels the burden of high expectations too keenly, or this is the season where fatigue from that aforementioned workload sets in, the Yankees rotation has been vastly improved. That doesn't mean that question marks don't abound -- in the bullpen, where David Robertson steps out of the setup role into the less-valuable yet higher-stress closer role, where there is only a patchwork at second and third bases, Kuroda has to show that his stretch run was not a harbinger of future thrashings, Sabathia has to rediscover his velocity, Ivan Nova his consistency, and so on.
So, don't go buying your postseason tickets just yet. Still, that's a one-year concern, not a four-year one. The Yankees' remodeling has left them older than ever, so more breakdowns, more patches, are on the way. In Tanaka the Yankees have added a younger piece who, barring injury, should be part of the solution set even as greyer heads come and go. That's a victory.