Ah, the New York Yankees.
From year to year, the Bronx Bombers’ payroll is consistently among the highest across the MLB, and their moves this offseason will keep them in that category. Since their 2013 campaign came to a disappointing finish, the Yankees have made big waves with big acquisitions.
They picked up names like outfielders Jacoby Ellsbury and Carlos Beltran, catcher Brian McCann, and the biggest prize of them all, Japanese pitching ace Masahiro Tanaka. There were plenty of other signings during their offseason, but these names stand out because of the paychecks they’ll receive.
According to Spotrac.com, the contracts for these four free agents come to a combined $438,000,000. These aren’t even all of the insanely high contracts. The likes of Alex Rodriguez, CC Sabathia, Mark Teixeira and Alfonso Soriano all have contracts that exceed $130 million.
For the upcoming season, the Yankees are projected to pay $195,215,709 to their players. According to Baseball Prospectus, they are projected to be second only to the Los Angeles Dodgers ($219,408,334 projected) in payroll for the 2014 season.
Barring any more massive signings, the Yankees are actually projected to be down in their payroll for the upcoming season, despite spending nearly $500 million this winter. Baseball Prospectus reports that their payroll last season was a league-leading $228,106,125 in 2013. So this is welcome news for the Yanks, but it still isn’t where they thought they would be.
The goal of the Yankees, according to General Manager Brian Cashman, is to improve, no matter the cost. Cashman told the New York Daily News, “I think clearly a lot of heavy lifting needed to take place this winter, and it has taken place. I think we’re always looking to improve.”
Initially, the Yankees looked like they wanted to stay under the luxury tax threshold. According to Sports Illustrated, what that means is that if the Yanks’ salaries exceed $189 million, they’ll be taxed 50% on any overages. No luxury tax seemed ideal.
Enter Masahiro Tanaka.
The New York Daily News reported the 25-year old posted a 24-0 record and a 1.27 ERA last year with the Rakuten Golden Eagles of the Nippon Professional League in Japan. Since 2007, his record is 99-35 with a 2.30 ERA. Posting 1,238 strikeouts in 175 games isn’t so bad, either.
So here we are, Cashman with his desire for some “heavy lifting,” and an ace with a microscopic ERA and a 97 MPH fastball. Would you push your team over the luxury tax threshold for that?
The Yanks’ starting pitching staff in 2013, according to Baseball-Reference.com, posted an average 4.18 ERA and a combined 476 runs. ESPN reported that in 2013, the Yankees’ pitching ranked 18th in MLB. This isn’t all that terrible, but it certainly isn’t in the elite. What’s the solution? “Heavy lifting.”
Baseball Prospectus lists Tanaka’s salary as a seven year deal, with an opt-out clause after four seasons. He’ll make $22 million annually until 2020, when he’ll earn $23 million in his final year. This contract is large, and there is a very big possibility he will opt out to make more, but this is worth it for the Yankees.
This pitching staff needs youth, with two of their starters getting elderly. CC Sabathia, the big man with a curveball that drops off the table, is 33. Hiroki Kuroda, who posted the lowest ERA on the Yanks last year (3.31) is now 38. Now 25 year-old Tanaka isn’t the youngest hotshot out there, but he’s young enough to make an impact, and he’s locked in for at least four seasons.
The knock on this signing is bringing someone from a foreign league to play in the MLB. Red Sox fans went through this with Daisuke Matsuzaka. According to Japaneseballplayers.com, he came into the Nippon Professional League at the age of 18 with the Seibu Lions and played eight seasons, posting a career 3.00 ERA. He came over to the MLB at about the same age as Tanaka, with a 2.13 ERA in 186.1 innings that season.
His career with the Red Sox was a troubled one. “Dice-K” suffered injuries and missed a lot of time with the Sox. He underwent Tommy John surgery (to repair damaged elbow ligaments) in 2011. His 5.23 ERA with the Red Sox, including an 8.28 ERA in 2012, drew the ire of Sox fans and he became a huge bust.
Let’s relate this back to the Yanks. The Bronx Bombers have been less than successful in regards to importing pitchers. According to Japaneseballplayers.com, hulking right-hander Hideki Irabu turned heads with the Chiba Lotte Marines in Japan, posting an ERA of 3.10 or less from 1993-96.
He came to New York and posted a disappointing 5.33 ERA in three seasons with the Yankees.
Similarly, Kei Igawa dominated with the Hanshin Tigers, then came to New York and lasted just two seasons.
Is it the fact that these Japanese hurlers pitched a lot of innings in Japan before coming to MLB, which made them eventual busts? That’s one train of thought.
However, I don’t think we can paint all pitchers who come from overseas with the same brush. Look at Orlando Hernandez. He came from Cuba and debuted in New York in 1998. According to Baseball-Reference.com, he pitched six seasons with the Yanks, winning three World Series, and boasted a 3.93 ERA.
Yes, it is a risk, but this is a risk that the Yankees had to take. Tanaka’s got tons of promise and, more importantly, this is a deal that the Yankees can afford. Will he be the next Kei Igawa or the next Orlando Hernandez? We’ll see, come October.
Ray Waldron can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org