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What does the signing of Masahiro Tanaka really mean for the Yankees?

Rotation security and more spending in 2014 could be the biggest benefits
01/22/2014 8:57 AM ET
By Lou DiPietro

Masahiro Tanaka will try to replace that Grand Prix trophy with a World Series one in the Bronx.(AP)
The New York Yankees have reportedly won the battle for Japanese hurler Masahiro Tanaka, with indications that the team has signed the 25-year-old right-hander to a seven-year, $155 million contract with an opt-out clause after the fourth year.

FOX Sports insider Ken Rosenthal was first to report the parameters of the deal, which would keep Tanaka in pinstripes at least through 2017 and, for at least the next few seasons, give the Yankees a rather formidable one-two punch with lefty CC Sabathia, who is signed through 2016 with a vesting option for the following year.

But beyond the big splash of the addition, what does the signing of Tanaka really mean for the Yankees? The answer to that question is three-fold, with the dynamics of the rotation being the biggest benefit; with the righty now in pinstripes, the Yankees will have a top four of Sabathia, Tanaka, Hiroki Kuroda, and Ivan Nova, with the planned Spring Training competition now for the fifth slot only - and that benefit in and of itself is a two-fold one.

Of course, having Tanaka, who went 24-0 with a 1.27 ERA and led the Rakuten Golden Eagles to the Japan Series title last season, means another sure thing in the rotation, but it also means more arms for less spots, meaning the Yankees can choose their fifth man wisely; whether the potential pitfall is Michael Pineda suffering a setback in his return from shoulder surgery, or Vidal Nuno or Adam Warren showing they're not quite ready to be more than long men, or David Phelps not being 100 percent or faltering, the Yankees now only need to use any of those four (or more) arms to fill two slots - fifth starter and swingman - instead of three, so an injury or issue doesn't mean decisions are made by default.

The second, and perhaps biggest piece of fallout, is that the Yankees' desire to keep the payroll below the $189 million luxury tax threshold is now a distant memory, as Tanaka's annual average value of more than $22 million will put them over that mark. So, then, with the possibility gone, will the Yankees recreate the 2008-09 offseason and decide that even at paying 50 percent of their overage in taxes, the spending is worth it and end whatever is necessary to shore up the remaining holes on the roster.

Assistant general manager Billy Eppler said last week that the team was "prepared to go to war" with what they have at the second and third base positions, but with the $189 million mark in the rear-view mirror, could they decide it's worth the loss of another draft pick to try to convince Stephen Drew to come to New York, with the pitch being that he would play third (or even second in a pinch) for a year - while filling in at shortstop as needed if and when Derek Jeter is either DH'ing or out of the lineup - before possibly replacing the Captain in 2015?

Likewise, with a current bullpen of David Robertson, Shawn Kelley, Matt Thornton, and a whole lot of uncertainty and the closer's role still up in the air, might the Yankees now decide to go out and sign one or more of the handful of late-inning relievers still on the market? Yes, there are a lot of options between in-house candidates and this year's Minor League signings, but Fernando Rodney, who just two years ago put together the best season ever by a closer, is still a free agent, as are Grant Balfour, Francisco Rodriguez, and a handful of others who have more closing have more closing experience than anyone currently on the Yankees roster.

And to go one step further, could the Yankees decide to eschew that planned competition for the final rotation spot and either sign another big-name starter like Ubaldo Jimenez, Matt Garza, or Ervin Santana or, at the very least, add someone like Bronson Arroyo or Joe Saunders as one-year insurance?

Finally, beyond this year's rotation and payroll, the third benefit of the Tanaka signing is perhaps some long-term security for the starting five. The Yankees have Tanaka at least through his prime years of 25-28, so even if he opts out, the team knows they have Tanaka and Sabathia for at least four more seasons; add in the facts that Ivan Nova is arbitration eligible for the 2015 and 2016 seasons and that the 2018 season is the earliest any of the aforementioned fifth starter candidates could become true free agents, and you have a rotation that, if everyone performs to expectation, is locked in for at least three or four more seasons.

Whether it was via trade, free agency, or re-signing one of their own, the Yankees have had to fill at least two spots in their starting rotation every year since inking Sabathia and A.J. Burnett prior to 2009, but it's possible that they now only have to fill a grand total of one between now and the 2017 season and will have plenty of internal options to do it.

The "standard line" says that pitching and defense wins championships, so that last fact could just be the one that brings World Series ring No. 28 to the Bronx in the very near future.

 

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