The New York Yankees gave Japan’s Masahiro Tanaka the fifth-richest contract for a pitcher in Major League Baseball history in an effort to bolster their starting staff after missing the playoffs last season for just the second time in the past 19 years.
Tanaka, who went 24-0 last season to lead his team to the Japanese baseball championship, agreed to a seven-year, $155 million deal, according to his agent, Casey Close, who also represents Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter. Tanaka could opt out of the contract after the first four years.
The addition of Tanaka comes during an offseason in which the Yankees lost All-Star second baseman Robinson Cano as a free agent while adding players such as Brian McCann and outfielders Jacoby Ellsbury and Carlos Beltran. Tanaka’s contract will push the Yankees’ player payroll to $203 million, Fox Sports said, surpassing baseball’s $189 million luxury tax threshold.
“When you want to acquire some of the best talent in the world, whether it’s coming from the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, the United States or Japan, the highest talent obviously costs a lot of money.” Yankees General Manager Brian Cashman said yesterday on a conference call. “On a yearly basis, the effort of clubs that try to improve themselves creates that bidding environment that produces large contracts for rare talent. This is a circumstance that speaks to that.”
The 25-year-old right-hander led the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles to their first Japanese championship last year, going undefeated with a 1.27 earned-run average during the regular season. His streak of 30 games without a loss ended in Game 6 of the Japan Series, yet he returned a day after that 160-pitch performance to close out the decisive seventh game in relief.
Cashman said the Yankees’ interest in Tanaka began in 2007, when he made his professional debut in Japan at the age of 18 and was first evaluated. Cashman said the Yankees “paid close attention” to Tanaka and how he fared against major-league hitters during the 2009 World Baseball Classic and had scouts at 15 of his games last season.
The Yankees had former outfielder Hideki Matsui, the Most Valuable Player of their last World Series title in 2009, make a call to Tanaka about playing in New York for a franchise that’s won a record 27 championships.
Contract negotiations were completed two days before the Jan. 24 deadline for Tanaka to accept an offer from interested MLB teams. The Los Angeles Dodgers, Chicago Cubs, Chicago White Sox and Arizona Diamondbacks were among the other teams pursuing him during the 30-day negotiating window.
“I was told after that we were the highest, that it was very competitive and that the other teams were in the vicinity of our team,” Cashman said of other offers.
The Yankees also have to pay a $20 million posting fee to Tanaka’s former Japanese team. Tanaka had requested to play in the U.S. after winning the Japan Series, and Tohoku Rakuten agreed in December to make him available to MLB teams. Nippon Professional Baseball and MLB agreed to new terms last year that cap the amount U.S. teams pay for the right to negotiate with Japanese players at $20 million.
Close, of Excel Sports Management, confirmed financial terms of Tanaka’s contract in an e-mail. In addition to Jeter, Close also represents Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw, a two-time National League Cy Young award winner who earlier this month signed the richest contract for a pitcher in Major League Baseball history at $215 million over seven years.
Justin Verlander has a $180 million contract with the Detroit Tigers, Felix Hernandez is signed by the Seattle Mariners for $175 million and CC Sabathia’s original deal with the Yankees is worth $161 million.
“I’m sure there are players wondering about giving that much money to someone who’s never thrown a pitch in the majors,” said MLB Network analyst Harold Reynolds.
Tanaka was dominant in Japan, posting a 99-36 record with a 2.30 ERA over 175 games with Rakuten, while striking out 1,238 batters in 1,315 innings. The past three seasons, Tanaka was 53-9 with a 1.44 ERA, striking out 593 batters and walking 78.
Cashman said while there “are risks with pitchers from Japan,” optimism about Tanaka’s potential outweighed the team’s concerns about the number of innings he’s pitched and adjustment to the baseball in the U.S.
“The workload for starters is different. Strike zones are different, the lineups are different,” Cashman said. “There’s a lot of risk associated with working through those variables and that speaks to why we had a scout over there as much as possible. At some point you have to make a call. We believe in this player’s talent.”
The Yankees have had mixed results with Japanese starting pitchers. Hideki Irabu and Kei Igawa combined for a 5.43 ERA during their time with the franchise, while Hiroki Kuroda has logged a 3.31 ERA over the past two seasons.
Among starting pitchers with the eight lowest ERA in the majors last season, three were Japanese: Kuroda, Yu Darvish of the Texas Rangers and Hisashi Iwakuma of the Seattle Mariners. Darvish finished second in the American League Cy Young voting last season and Iwakuma was third.
“He can overpower and he can control,” former Yankees outfielder Andruw Jones, said of Tanaka, with whom he played in Japan last season. “He spots his control and keeps the ball down in the zone. If you do those things up in the major leagues, you’ve got a good chance.”
Tanaka joins a starting staff that includes Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda and Ivan Nova. The Yankees’ starting staff last year went a combined 55-63 with a 4.08 ERA, ranking 18th among the league’s 30 teams.
The Yankees had been seeking to reduce payroll to avoid luxury taxes that can be as high as 50 percent of any amount over the $189 million threshold. The addition of Tanaka pushed them past that. It also improved their chances of winning the World Series, according to oddsmakers at Bovada.lv who lowered their odds to 10-1 from 14-1 yesterday.
“There’s a lot of great teams in the AL,” Cashman said. “Hopefully we’ve pushed ourselves in the level of conversation that we can now be included back among some of the better teams.”
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