Signing Tanaka a risk Yankees needed to take

01/24/2014 7:45 AM ET
By Lou DiPietro

Masahiro Tanaka was all smiles as he said goodbye to the Rakuten Golden Eagles on Thursday.(AP)
No matter how you slice it financially, Masahiro Tanaka’s seven-year, $155 million contract with the Yankees is certainly a bombshell.

In terms of overall value, only 17 players (and just four starting pitchers) in MLB history have inked a deal worth more than $155 million over its life, and at just over $22 million, the average annual value is the tenth-largest of any contract ever doled out.

So, naturally, it goes without saying that it’s the largest deal ever given to an international free agent, and when you add in the $20 million posting fee, it surpasses Yu Darvish’s 2011 contract by nearly $70 million as the largest outlay for any Japanese import.

All part of the game, Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said in a conference call announcing the deal Wednesday afternoon.

“It’s the cost of doing business. I think that no matter what, when you want to acquire some of the best talent in the world, wherever it comes from, obviously the best talent costs a lot of money,” Cashman said. “You can point to players here in MLB, or in football or with soccer transfers – there’s a lot of good players and a lot that don’t work out, but one thing that’s consistent is that on a yearly basis, the efforts of clubs to try to improve themselves creates a bidding environment that produces large contracts for rare talent.”

Of course, Cashman said, the recent changes to the posting system, which allow any team that submits the capped maximum bid to negotiate with a player instead of reserving those rights for the sole highest bidder, helped drive up the actual cost of the deal somewhat.

“When you put a player in a situation where he’s free to choose and have a competitive bidding environment, it’s clearly going to affect the price,” he said. “The new system took the strength in the post and reversed it, giving the player the leverage to produce the contract they want.”

And in addition to all that money, the deal also includes an opt-out clause after 2017, which the GM revealed that wasn’t exactly the plan all along.

“I certainly did not suggest the opt-out clause. That was something that was presented to me by Casey Close, and was something that sounded like it was an important component that was part of most of the other offers,” Cashman said. “It certainly felt (mandatory). Casey has always been a direct and honest person, and I believe what he told me, that if we wanted to compete with the other teams, that this was going to have to be part of the process. Our initial offer did not include an opt-out.”

Regardless, Tanaka is a Yankee for at least the next four seasons, with Cashman revealing that he was told after the contract was signed that many teams were in the vicinity of the deal the Yankees offered, but theirs was indeed the highest.

A lofty investment, even though Tanaka is just 25 and considered to be just now hitting his prime – lofty because as the GM noted, one thing he and the Yankees factored in is that even though Tanaka is young, he does already have more than 1,300 professional innings under his belt and is now coming to a more difficult environment.

How that change plays out, he said, will simply be mind over matter.

“You always have concerns (about the workload), because that’s something you can’t ignore or deny, but despite that, with his age and talent, our scouting assessments, and the pitching market the way it is, it’s certainly something that we’re still willing to take the risk,” Cashman said. “There are a lot of variables scouts can pick up on, and there are a number of former Yankees who played with him, so we had a chance to try to assess him through a number of former Major League players and our Japanese connections. You try to get as much info as you can to fill in the blanks so that when you have to make a decision, it’s as informed a decision as you can make.”

And after seven years of scouting Tanaka, Cashman said that the righty’s competitive nature may be his biggest and most positive attribute.

“He has just gotten better and better, and with the competition, the higher the stakes the more he would step up. The higher the circumstances within an individual game, he would dial it up,” he said. “You’ve seen a number of things written about him, and the one thing that I think has resonated throughout is the competitive side; he thrives on the biggest stage, and hopefully that speaks to one of the reasons why he chose us.”

Cashman did note that the team knew, especially after what happened with Kei Igawa, that there would be significant risk involved in signing Tanaka – or anyone coming from overseas, for that matter – but in the end, they have faith in the scouting process that led to the signing.

“There are risks with pitchers from Japan that I have spoken to; (NPB’s ball is) still different than the Major League ball, the workload is different, the strike zones and lineups are different, so there’s a lot of risk associated with working through those variables,” he said, “but that speaks to why we made sure we had scouts watching Tanaka as much as possible. At some point, you still have to make a judgment call, and we obviously believe in this player’s talent. It’s nice to see there are a lot of MLB teams that also view that talent similarly, and those questions will be answered shortly when he transfers over to the States.”

That said, the GM was asked about his apparent decision to eschew the market two years ago and not pursue Yu Darvish, who has gone 29-18 with a 3.38 ERA for the Rangers, and Cashman actually admitted that in Darvish’s case, it actually was all about the money.

“I’d say we were very much interested in Yu Darvish, but with the posting number that it was going to cost, along with the other opportunities we had – like signing Hiroki Kuroda – there was a financial consideration in all of that,” Cashman said. “I would at least make sure that the scouting assessment we had with Darvish was correct, but there are a lot of other factors that went into our not securing him.”

But now, two winters later, Tanaka is a Yankee, and unlike Darvish, Cashman says he won’t have to worry about any “ace” pressure for now – but the world will soon see exactly what made Masahiro Tanaka just that over in his homeland.

“He is a part of the rotation, and we’ll find out if he has ace qualities,” Cashman said. “He has a great deal of ability. I do know that his desire to be successful is real and strong, and there’s a lot of inner desire for him to prove he can succeed in MLB as he did in NPB.”

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