Many questions were raised by the New York Yankees’ signing of Masahiro Tanaka, but a cast-iron certainty trumps them all: They had no other choice.
On Wednesday, the Yankees signed the Japanese right-hander, reportedly for seven years and $155 million. Tanaka will round out the Yankee rotation, most likely starting out as a third man behind CC Sabathia and Hiroki Kuroda.
Given how erratic those two pitchers were last year, the Yankees have pretty much put all their eggs in one basket with Tanaka, and many think whether or not they can compete for a championship hinges on how well he can adjust to the American major leagues.
The concerns about the Tanaka signing are undeniable. The Yankees are handing a boatload of cash over to a guy who, at a mere 25, has over 1,300 innings pitched under his belt, yet has never thrown a pitch this side of the Pacific. Early burnout or success lost in translation could easily surface in a couple of years, turning the contract we are celebrating today into the biggest dud since Hideki Irabu.
But I’ll say it again: They had no other choice. Prior to the signing, if you looked at the potential Yankee roster, the biggest problem was the starting rotation. Sabathia and Kuroda experienced major ups and downs last year, and both are aging. Expecting Ivan Nova to be a second or third man is asking a lot, and David Phelps is a fifth starter at best. Decent free agent starters were few and far between this offseason, and the Yankees certainly weren’t getting any help from their farm system. Pitchers who were supposed to be the next big thing like Dellin Betances and Adam Warren have proven themselves not quite ready for prime time.
Another reason why the Yankees were backed into a corner? In case Yankee fans forgot, the Red Sox won the World Series while our boys in pinstripes spent the entire 2013 postseason on the golf course. The Yankees had to prove that they can rebound in 2014, and they did it by doing what they do best: spending money.
In fact, the Yankees probably aren’t the least bit concerned about what Tanaka is going to be able to do for them seven, five, or even two years from now. (The contract does, however, have an opt-out clause, which is incentive for him to pitch well in the front end and wind up with a big payday after the fourth year.) They are clearly fixated on this season, both on winning the World Series and probably winning back some of their audience, which waned when Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez weren’t on the field last season. There’ll be no A-Rod this season, and although the Yankees are hoping for a full recovery from Jeter, he inevitably won’t be able to provide the face time we’re used to from him.
The contracts hammered out with Tanaka, Brian McCann, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Carlos Beltran have set the Yanks back nearly a half a billion dollars this offseason. That’s more than they spent the winter before they won the World Series in 2009, when they signed Sabathia, Nick Swisher, AJ Burnett, and Mark Teixeira.
In reality, the Yankees only have two goals any given year: to win another championship, and to make money. And while we’re on the subject of a reality check, there are myriad other questions that punctuate this offseason: How much offensive production can we expect from second and third base? Is David Robertson really a viable option for closer? Will Teixeira and Jeter come back strong, or as shells of their former selves?
The answers to those questions remain to be seen, but at least for now, the Yankees are hoping Tanaka is a step in the right direction toward achieving those goals, now that the goal (not a mandate) of staying under $189 million is apparently defunct.