According to Mark Hale of the New York Post, the Yankees have sent representatives to Japan to scout Japanese pitcher Masahiro Tanaka. The 24-year-old right-hander, already in his seventh professional season, was profiled recently by Jonah Keri of Grantland and is expected to make the move to America for the 2014 season.
At the end of the 2013 season, Hiroki Kuroda, Andy Pettitte and Phil Hughes are set to hit the free agent market. Due to a recent surge, Ivan Nova has put himself squarely into the picture behind CC Sabathia in the 2014 Yankees rotation plans. Beyond that? There are holes to fill.
With Billy Eppler and Don Wakamatsu already gathering information on Tanaka's value for the Yankees, it's time for the New York fanbase to get to know a pitcher that could be part of the hot stove picture this offseason.
First and foremost, two things jump out when perusing Tanaka's statistics from Japan: A 19-0 record and declining K/9 rates over the last two seasons.
While wins and losses can be deceiving and ultimately factor in many things other than the performance of an individual pitcher, 19-0 is quite impressive. It's also very likely to open the eye of fans here in American when Tanaka's name does become mainstream in November or December.
As for the K/9 rates: Although Tanaka is missing bats at a smaller rate in 2012 and 2013 than he did in 2011, his ERA (1.20) and WHIP (0.93) are currently career bests.
Projecting the ultimate fate of a Japanese pitcher in Major League Baseball can be an arduous task, but Baseball America's Ben Badler was up to the chore in his evaluation of Tanaka in August.
In that evaluation, Badler gave a glimpse into what kind of pitcher Tanaka is expected to be in America, saying, "The most prized talent in Japan is Tanaka, a 24-year-old who some scouts project as a potential No. 2 starter who can immediately step into a major league rotation."
He went on to describe Tanaka's arsenal on the mound that has him projected to succeed to the level of a No. 2 starter in Major League Baseball:
At 6-foot-2, 205 pounds, Tanaka throws a low-90s fastball that can touch 96 mph. Even though Tanaka can reach the mid-90s, his fastball is the pitch that gives some scouts pause because it comes in on a flat plane, making it more hittable than the velocity might suggest. Tanaka has two secondary pitches that have earned grades of 60 or better on the 20-80 scouting scale, including a 70 splitter with late downward action to keep hitters off his fastball. His low- to mid-80s slider is another plus weapon, while he’ll mix in a curveball as well.
If you're more of a visual evaluator when it comes to pitching talent, here is video of Tanaka on the hill:
As you can tell by watching the film and through Badler's excellent description, Tanaka's splitter is tremendous. It's easy to imagine left-handed hitters struggling to decipher that pitch, regardless of league or level.
Aesthetically, Tanaka reminds me of Hiroki Kurdoa. The difference? Kuroda came to America as a 33-year-old, without much hype and has pitched under the radar for most of his tenure in Major League Baseball. With a 119 ERA-plus in nearly 1,100 major league innings, Kuroda has been a perfect number two starter for both the Dodgers and Yankees.
Due to his age upon arrival, reluctance to take long-term deals or play in a city not named Los Angeles or New York, Kuroda has curtailed his earning potential.
Don't expect Tanaka to due to the same.
The success of Kuroda, and, on a larger scale, Yu Darvish, will likely outweigh fears of Tanaka becoming the next Daisuke Matsuzaka or Kei Igawa.
When it comes time for posting fees and free agent contracts, Tanaka is likely to receive less than Yu Darvish's total package, but, considering the dearth of free agent arms outside of Matt Garza, could be worth a total deal around what Anibal Sanchez received last offseason.
Of course, the nature of posting fees and the guessing game around which team will win the rights to offer Tanaka a deal will be just as intriguing as the actual contract he garners.
Outside of the Yankees, reports have surfaced about interest from the Giants (via CSN Bay Area), Rangers (via Baseball America's report cited earlier), Red Sox and A's (via the Boston Globe). With a pitching staff currently posting an ERA worse than anyone outside Houston and the sting of finishing second in the Darvish derby still hurting, Toronto could be a viable entrant into the mix as well.
There you have it, Yankees fans.
Tanaka is a potential No. 2 starter, likely on his way to America, in the midst of a 19-0 season, possessing a devastating splitter and about to be perused by big and small market teams.
If Yankees general manager Brian Cashman needs to fill three rotation holes in one winter, there's a decent chance that Tanaka will become a household name in New York.
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