What does $155 million buy you nowadays?
The New York Yankees receive their first glimpse in game action Saturday, as Japanese import Masahiro Tanaka will take the mound against the Philadelphia Phillies for his spring training debut, according to Wallace Matthews of ESPN New York.
Tanaka, who came over to the United States after a seven-year stint with the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles in Japan, is unquestionably the second-biggest attraction of Yankees spring training—only eclipsed by the retirement-touring Derek Jeter.
A source of intrigue for both the Yankees and fans of all 30 teams, Tanaka's presence has drawn swaths of media—many hailing from his native Japan. New York has understandably been protective of its prized asset, limiting media access and even closing off entire portions of his bullpen sessions to scale back the attention.
It has worked, but only on a limited basis. Reporters from all walks of life want to know whether the Yankees' massive investment—Tanaka's contract is the biggest ever given to a Japanese import—is worthwhile or will go down as another high-priced failure.
Thus far, the reaction has been overwhelmingly positive.
Yankees players understandably cannot help themselves from falling head over heels. When Tanaka threw his first bullpen session Friday, down the line players walked away raving about his skill set—specifically his splitter. Tanaka used the splitter as his out pitch throughout his time in Japan, and catcher Austin Romine told reporters he had "never seen" a pitch move that way before:
Tracking it in, I didn’t know what it was until halfway in. You’re going to see a lot of guys swinging and looking like fools on that pitch, I can just already tell. And (his) fastball has a good angle down and away, locking me up on fastballs away. Just the overall angle and consistency with all his pitches, it’s going to be something special.
Despite his success, Tanaka is still (like all players) building his strength toward the regular season. Through his interpreter, Tanaka said he was roughly throwing at 70 percent in his first bullpen session, and indicated he'll need just as much of an adjustment period to MLB hitters as they to him.
“It’s kind of hard to answer that question because you want to see how the batters react to that splitter,” Tanaka said. “Right now it’s hard to tell, but as far as in the bullpen session goes, I feel that I can get a little bit better.”
Tanaka famously went 24-0 with a 1.27 ERA last season with the Golden Eagles, topping the NPB in both categories. While hitters speak fondly of Tanaka's splitter, he mostly pitched to contact in 2013, striking out 7.8 batters per nine innings. Given the obvious uptick in opponent strength from Japan to MLB, one would venture to guess his peripherals are bound to get a little worse.
Mike Podhorzer of FanGraphs expects a 12-win season, with his ERA settling right around 3.50. That's a very good big league pitcher—especially in the American League East—but probably not someone worth more than $20 million per season. If he's able to adjust long term and stay healthy (not a small factor considering his workload), Tanaka still should be a very good pickup.
With the Yankees printing money as a franchise, it's also worthwhile to point out just how much better Tanaka should be than his potential replacement. Behind CC Sabathia, New York's rotation is filled to the brim with uncertainties. Hiroki Kuroda scuffled down the stretch last season after a promising start, and you'll be hard pressed to find anyone who believes Ivan Nova can match his 2013 splits.
This is only a minor step in a long journey. Just don't tell that to the swarm of people in Florida watching Tanaka's every move.
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