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Yankees sold on Tanaka's competitive spirit

His numbers jump out at you, but the pitcher's demeanor won over New York
01/22/2014 11:14 AM ET
By Jack Curry

Masahiro Tanaka is heading to the United States after a dominant season last year in Japan.(AP)
When Masahiro Tanaka was 18 years old, the Yankees began scouting him in Japan. The Yankees were already scouting Yu Darvish in Japan in 2007, but they were also intrigued enough with Tanaka's talents that they monitored him, too. By 2009, the Yankees were drooling over Tanaka and imagining what it would be like to have him in their rotation.

What the Yankees imagined about Tanaka has become a reality after they signed the pitcher to a 7-year, $155 million contract on Wednesday. Since the Yankees also must pay a $20 million posting fee to the Rakuten Golden Eagles, Tanaka's former team, they have now invested $175 million in someone that has never thrown a pitch in the Major Leagues. But the Yankees believe the 25-year-old will be a linchpin in their rotation for years to come.

Across the last few seasons, the Yankees have studied Tanaka's impressive exploits on the mound and have seen a fierce competitor, someone that reminds them of CC Sabathia. The Yankees interviewed Andruw Jones, Casey McGehee and Darrell Rasner, former Yankees who all were teammates with Tanaka, and heard superb reports about his demeanor and toughness. By the time the Yankees made their offer to Tanaka, they had 11 different scouting evaluations from members of their organization.

What those 22 experienced baseball eyes saw was enough evidence for the Yankees to invest heavily in Tanaka. And, as much as the Yankees were chasing Tanaka, he was chasing the Major League dream. Between starts in Japan, Tanaka used a Major League baseball, which is considered slicker than the ball that is used in Japan, to help him get acclimated for 2014. The Yankees had scouts at 15 of Tanaka's starts in 2013, a season in which he was 24-0 with a 1.27 earned run average, 183 strikeouts and 32 walks in 212 innings.

By signing Tanaka, the Yankees culminated a frenetic offseason shopping spree. After not reaching the postseason in 2013, the Yankees have invested over a half billion dollars by reaching agreements with Tanaka ($175 million, including the posting fee), Jacoby Ellsbury ($153 million), Brian McCann ($85 million), Carlos Beltran ($45 million), Hiroki Kuroda ($16 million), Derek Jeter ($12 million), Matt Thornton ($7 million), Brendan Ryan ($5 million), Kelly Johnson ($3 million) and Brian Roberts ($2 million). For those without calculators, that's a cool $503 million.

As the Yankees prepared for 2014, Hal Steinbrenner, the managing general partner, repeatedly said that it was a goal, not a mandate, to have a payroll under $189 million. If the Yankees accomplished that feat, they would have reaped some major financial rewards. But Tanaka's addition validated Steinbrenner's remarks about $189 million being a goal because Tanaka's deal, which averages $22.1 million per season, will catapult the Yankees over that threshold. Tanaka's contract includes an opt out after the fourth year and was first reported by Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports.

If Tanaka is as talented and effective as the Yankees think he can be, he will give them another elite pitcher to join Sabathia at the top of the rotation. As expensive as young pitching can be (see Kershaw, Clayton and $215 million) and with no obvious prospects to slide into the rotation, the Yankees felt it was essential to secure Tanaka. With Tanaka, Sabathia, Kuroda and Ivan Nova, the Yankees have a solid front four in their rotation. Michael Pineda, Adam Warren, David Phelps and Vidal Nuno will be in the hunt for the fifth spot. The losers in that battle could land in the bullpen and add depth, meaning Tanaka's signing should have a trickle down effect.  

For the Yankees, this pursuit stretched back several years. After seeing Tanaka pitch in relief in the 2009 World Baseball Classic with a Major League ball, against Major League hitters and in Major League Stadiums, the Yankees were sold. Even though it was a small sample size, the Yankees were smitten with Tanaka. In 2014, the Yankees don't have to imagine what it's like to have Tanaka in their rotation. It's a reality. The Yankees have their man.  

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