The offsason long rumors and two week long bidding war are over, and the most expensive and highest profile prospect in baseball has signed; Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports is reporting that Japanese righthander Masahiro Tanaka has agreed to a seven year, 155 million dollar contract with the New York Yankees.
Only 25 and having never pitched outside of the Nippon Professional Baseball, which is a significant drop-off, talent wise, from the major leagues, Tanaka is still a prospect, but his contract is comprable to those earned by established Cy Young winners Justin Verlander (180 million), CC Sabathia (161 million), and Felix Hernandez (175 million). This is particularly true when the 20 million dollar posting fee that the Yankees will pay to Tanaka’s former team, the Rakuten Eagles, is factored in. The combined 175 million dollar transaction is approximately 60 million dollars greater than the Rangers paid for Yu Darvish just two years prior.
To receive such a lofty deal without ever throwing a single pitch in the majors, Tanaka would have at least rank among the top handful of prospects in all of baseball, and he does. In a recent mailbag with fans, JJ Cooper of Baseball America indicated that if listed, Tanaka would be the fourth best prospect in the game, falling behind the Twins’ Byron Buxton, the Red Sox’s Xander Bogaerts, and and the Cardinals’ Oscar Tavares.
Note that all three players above him are position players, as Tanaka has better combination of stuff and control than any starter in minor league baseball. He can command six pitches, all of which are major league quality, but he works primarily off a 91-94 MPH fastball, a slider one national scout described to Ben Badler of BA as “just filthy,” and a splitter that another scout told ESPN’s Tim Kirkjian was as good as any in the game right now. As evidenced by the massive bidding war and his resultant lucrative contract, this an opinion shared around the league.
Just as telling is his statistical performance in Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball, a league that is generally considered to be a step up from Triple-A but a step down from the majors. In 28 games last season (27 starts), Tanaka went 24-0 with a 1.27 ERA, eight complete games, a BB/9 of 1.4 and a SO/9 of 7.8. The only thing not mind bending in those numbers is his 7.8 SO/9, but it’s worth noting that fellow Japanese starter Yu Darvish had a higher strikeout rate last season with the Rangers than he did at any point during his NPB career.
For the Yankees, Tanaka provides a much needed infusion of elite young pitching. Their top two starters, C.C. Sabathia and Hiroki Kuroda are each on the wrong side of 32, Michael Pineda was once talented but hasn’t thrown a major league pitch in two years, and Adam Warren, David Phelps, and Vidal Nuno are all nothing more than than fourth starters. New York’s only dependable young rotation member is Ivan Nova, but even he’s missed times each of the past two seasons with injury. Tanaka could give them an ace for the next half decade, preventing the Steinbrenners from having to pursue the aging free agent veterans they would otherwise need.
The only question mark for Tanaka is durability. He was able to get such an exorbitant deal because of his youth, but his arm isn’t so young. In testimonies about the young righthander’s determination, teammates pointed to an incident season where Tanaka threw 160 pitches in one start and then came out in relief the following day. This, however, is just as much a testament to his grit as it is to the level of wear on his arm. Throwing over 130 pitches in a start has been routine over the last few seasons. By contrast, in the states, pitchers rarely exceed 120 pitches and Tim Lincecum made headlines last season for throwing just under 150 pitches in one start, before which he had eight days rest and after which he was given five. Some of the stories from Tanaka’s youth are even more concerning. He threw 742 pitches over a two week period as a 17 year old amateur and as a 20 year old he tossed over 135 pitches on consecutive days.
In Japan, pitchers aren’t viewed with the same fragility that they are in the states, leading to much higher pitch counts. But when Japanese starters transition to pitching on four day’s rest in the majors (they only start once ever seven days in the NPB), and this creates a high potential for injury. Daisuke Matzuzaka dealt with shoulder issues after just one major league season and eventually also had to undergo Tommy John surgery. Hideo Nomo had his own shoulder issues. While Yu Darvish has transitioned well thus far, at 6’5, 225 lbs, he is bigger and more durable than the 6’2, 205 lb Tanaka.
The Yankees would be wise to tread lightly on their 175 million dollar investment. He has the command, poise, and stuff to not only succeed but dominate at the major league level, and with C.C. Sabathia aging and coming off the worst season of his career, a young ace is something New York sorely needs.
See Tanaka at Yankee Stadium by checking out the Yanks Ticket Exchange for Spring Training and the 2014 season.