So the Yankees just spent a small fortune on Masahiro Tanaka — $155 million for seven years. What does that mean for the American League East? What does it mean for the Red Sox? Does it affect their ability to re-sign Jon Lester?
Let’s examine the issues.
Until we see him facing the Boston, Tampa Bay, and Baltimore lineups, nothing is assured. Is he Daisuke Matsuzaka or is he Yu Darvish? He is being paid like a No. 1 starter, but is he really an ace or is he a middle-of-the-rotation pitcher? You’ll get debates on both sides.
The bottom line is this: Yankees scouts identified him as the best free agent pitcher out there. He’s only 25, and he was lights-out for the Rakuten Golden Eagles last season with a 24-0 record and a minuscule 1.27 ERA. Those numbers are good no matter where you’re playing professional baseball. But as we learned with Matsuzaka, there’s a lot of acclimation that must occur.
The list includes getting used to the new ball; getting used to pitching to better hitters; not being able to get away with mistakes over the plate; pitching every fifth day; adjusting to the American culture; dealing with the pressure of New York; and living up to the contract.
Might it work out tremendously for the Yankees, who already have a proven Japanese veteran in Hiroki Kuroda to help the new pinstriper? Absolutely.
“He might start out like gangbusters because the league doesn’t know him and then when the league starts making adjustments after a dozen starts or so, then we’ll see what the Yankees have,” said a National League general manager.
“He has the potential to be a No. 1,” is the way another NL GM put it. “I don’t think you can say he’s a No. 1. He has No. 1 stuff, No. 1 success, but in a different venue. You don’t really know.
“But then again, you don’t really know when you see a great pitching prospect until he actually does it in the majors.
“The game is in the money spent. Do you expect him to live up to the money? The Yankees, Dodgers, Red Sox probably don’t have to worry about that as much as other teams.”
And so the Yankees blew away the competition, according to a major league source, by about $30 million. The best estimates we received are that the Dodgers, Diamondbacks, and Cubs were all in the $120 million range. The Astros and White Sox seemed to be over $100 million, but those estimates are sketchier.
If you have to commit those kinds of dollars, why not do it for a 25-year-old rather than a free agent who is 30-plus? That was the Yankee thinking.
“You always have concerns,” said Yankees GM Brian Cashman, regarding the large outlay of money and Tanaka’s heavy workload in Japan. “That’s always something you can’t ignore or deny.
“But I think that as you can see clearly by the competitive bidding on him as a free agent, with his age, talent, the scouting assessments on him, and the pitching market the way it is, it’s certainly something that we’re still willing to take the risk by acknowledging, yeah, there’s a workload there.”
So now they have a rotation of CC Sabathia, who showed much wear and tear last season at 32; Kuroda, who will be 39 and is coming off a bad second half; plus Ivan Nova, Dave Phelps, and a comebacking Michael Pineda.
“They did a great job,” said Diamondbacks GM Kevin Towers. “I would say Casey [Close, Tanaka’s agent] was awesome. They kept things quiet and gave everyone an equal opportunity to revise their offers and to offer guidance on where we needed to be. I had no real issues.
“For us, he would have been a No. 1. Outside of the Yankees, I think we knew him better than anyone. We had [former Red Sox pitcher] Mike Brown follow him for two years. We had a lot of other scouting personnel watching his starts several times.
“So we knew about his makeup and character and the fact he has a plus-plus forkball and he’s 25. He may not be Darvish but he’s pretty close.”
Suffice to say, the signing will have an impact.
On the division?
Well, it gives the Yankees another top starting pitcher, which they desperately needed. They still may need one more. Are they satisfied with David Robertson as their closer or do they need to look at something there? Who’s on third? Kelly Johnson? They could use help there for sure. But they’re a better team.
The effect on Lester?
It’s all cumulative. Clayton Kershaw’s seven-year, $215 million contract and Tanaka’s deal are all considered. Kershaw has won Cy Youngs and both pitchers are 25, which has become the new prime time for the modern pitcher.
Lester is 30, but he is a horse and one the Red Sox need in their rotation. Yet they have Henry Owens, who soon could replace Lester as the dominant lefty. They also have what they feel is an emerging lefty in Felix Doubront.
So yes, there’s a decision to be made, just as there was with Jacoby Ellsbury.
At Tuesday night’s “Hot Stove, Cool Music” event, GM Ben Cherington said that he and the organization look at everything on a case-by-case basis. The decision they made on Ellsbury might be different from the one they make on Lester.
Again, what we don’t know is whether Lester is more like Dustin Pedroia than Ellsbury. Would Lester take a discount to stay? The Red Sox will put a value on him and they won’t exceed it. That was their approach with Tanaka. They stuck to their figure and lost out.
The World Series champs love their team as is. They have been quiet this winter. They’re willing to allow their youngsters to make their way to the major league team. As you win, you also can develop and look ahead, and that’s what the Red Sox appear to be doing.
They knew the Yankees would be as active as they were last offseason. They knew that getting under the $189 luxury tax threshold was just talk.
They expected the Yankees to rebuild, and while they haven’t all the way, they appear to be on their way to being a force again.
Correction: Because of a reporting error, an earlier version of this story misidentified the team for which Kevin Towers serves as general manager.