Like Yu Darvish and Hyun-jin Ryu before him, right-hander Masahiro Tanaka is a coveted ace from the Far East who's expected to make the leap to Major League Baseball through the posting system.
Well, duh. Three-fifths of their 2013 starting rotation—Phil Hughes, Hiroki Kuroda (possible retirement) and Andy Pettitte (definite retirement)—will enter free agency next month. Although CC Sabathia is still under contract, he's coming off a disturbingly inconsistent season and is already 33 years old.
All told, recently re-signed manager Joe Girardi has only three guys penciled into the 2014 starting staff:
David Phelps, Adam Warren and other low-cost, internal solutions will presumably contend for the back-end openings. Come spring training, they'll be joined by major league veterans who settle for minor league contracts.
It's clear that Tanaka, who went an undefeated 22-0 for the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles this past season, will make the Yankees better.
The question is how significant an upgrade he'll be.
The soon-to-be 25-year-old is much more than a sexy win-loss record. For five straight seasons, he has posted sub-2.50 earned run averages, tossing dozens of complete games in that stretch with dominant strikeout-to-walk ratios. On paper, Tanaka resembles Darvish, who had comparable professional experience and statistics prior to signing with the Texas Rangers.
With that said, Grantland's Jonah Keri reminds us that performance overseas can be misleading:
Nippon Professional Baseball does have its share of stars. But the least-skilled and least-polished players in Japan are far worse than the bottom of the barrel in the majors. They're often 19-year-old kids, young enough to be better suited for rookie ball, only not even necessarily among the elite players at that level if they were hypothetically dropped onto low-minors rosters in the U.S...
This is the challenge scouts face in covering players from any country that's not the U.S. In Cuba and Korea, Taiwan and Japan, analyzing a pitcher's stuff, repertoire, and body type becomes far more important than sweating the results.
Conveniently, Bleacher Report's own Joe Giglio published a primer highlighting how Tanaka rates in these "far more important" factors.
Here's an excerpt he found from international prospects expert Ben Badler of Baseball America:
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.
In other words, Tanaka has the potential to fill Kuroda's shoes in the Yankees rotation. Let's use the beauty of video to demonstrate their similarities:
Same physical build. Same confidence in the splitter. These right-handers even have a mutual fondness of pausing during their deliveries to upset the opposition's timing.
From 2012-2013, #HIROK pitched to a 3.31 ERA, 1.16 WHIP, 6.8 K/9 while avoiding serious injuries. Maintaining that across 421 regular-season innings while collecting $25 million total from the team made him a bargain. The possibility of Tanaka picking up where his countryman left off should have Yankees fans salivating.
It's worth noting, of course, that he'll demand a much more lucrative contract. The average annual value should wind up in the eight figures, surpassing Darvish's deal due to the scarcity of other young free-agent starters with top-of-the-rotation potential. Imagine a floor of six years and $70 million guaranteed.
According to Baseball Prospectus, the Yankees already have more than $89 million committed to the 2014 payroll. With numerous holes to fill in the bullpen and starting lineup and a goal of spending under $189 million (to avoid the luxury-tax threshold), it appears that inking Tanaka would prevent the front office from pursuing a pair of legitimate inning-eaters.
Does it make sense for New York to invest in a hyped unknown, rather than, say, a Dan Haren/Ricky Nolasco combination?
That's for general manager Brian Cashman to decide.