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Yankees take on Tanaka

by Matt Smith

In writing an offseason round up over two weeks, as I completed recently, you’re going to find things changing over the period.

When I began in the AL East, my assessment of the New York Yankees included the statement, “don’t be surprised if they come out on top in the bidding for Japanese pitcher Mashiro Tankaka in the coming weeks”.

By the time I competed the trip around the divisions in the NL West, my reviews of the Dodgers and Diamondbacks focused on what they might do now that their hopes of landing the Japanese pitcher had just been dashed.

The Yankees’ $155m, seven-year contract with Tanaka was the latest in a significant spending spree. Add on the total commitments in their other three main offseason signings, Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann and Carlos Beltran, and they’ve invested $438m in just four players.

It’s no surprise because the Yankees have enormous pockets and a major incentive coming off the back of a miserable 2013 season capped by their biggest rivals, the Boston Red Sox, taking home the World Series trophy. Ideally they wanted their payroll to come in under the $189m luxury tax threshold, but the financial advantages of doing so would never add up in New York if it meant they didn’t have a chance of competing in 2014.

MLB allows teams to rebuild from the ground up as there is no threat of relegation to take into account; however, that’s simply not an option with the Yankees.  There are clear pitfalls in building a roster primarily around expensive free agents. You have to make long-term commitments in players at or starting to pass their peak, increasing the risk of tying up money in injured ex-stars whilst often lacking prospects to fill in due to losing top draft picks as a consequence of signing the free agents in the first place.

Yet the point of the Yankees each year is to win a World Series. If they fail in a given year, then the only objective is to win it next year instead.

Their most recent spending spree came in the 2008/09 offseason when they signed CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett and Mark Teixeira. Over the past two seasons they paid the majority of Burnett’s salary whilst he played for the Pirates and Teixeira has struggled badly with injuries, yet they won a World Series in 2009 and that’s really all that matters to them. Win a World Series or two, ride out the negatives of the spending for a year or so, then write it off and spend again to win another World Series or two.

Much as it’s frustrating for fans of other teams, the Yankees being the Yankees is a key part of the competitive MLB landscape.  Sport is driven by drama, excitement and intrigue and whilst there are many choice adjectives potential Yankee-bashers may care to use to describe them, ‘boring’ isn’t one of them.

Now that the contract’s been signed, the attention will turn to Tanaka’s transition from the Nippon Professional Baseball League to MLB.

Signing a contract that will guarantee you $155m might not seem like something you’d need to think twice about, but Tanaka’s decision to go with the Yankees shows the confidence and belief he has in his ability. He will know that a settling-in period isn’t included in the package; he’s expected to deliver from season one and there will be no hiding place along the way. The two teams in Chicago and the Arizona Diamondbacks would have gladly made him a very wealthy man whilst offering a measure of breathing space to get used to the game in the Majors and life in the States.

Tanaka knows the pressures that come with signing for the Yankees and that they are also what will make the rewards all the greater if he is successful with the team. Yu Darvish’s outstanding 2013 with the Texas Rangers showed, were there any misguided doubts, that we shouldn’t prejudge how Tanaka will adjust based on a previous big-ticket import like Daisuke Matsuzaka not quite living up to expectations in the past*.

It will be fascinating to see how Tanaka gets on in his debut MLB season as part of a Yankee team that has improved over the offseason, but that still has plenty of question marks over it (not least in the infield).

* As an aside, the fact that the Mets signed Matsuzaka on a minor-league contract in the same week that the Yankees signed Tanaka for $155m is yet another reason for Mets fans to be maddened by the way their team has been mismanaged over the past five seasons. Taking a flyer on Matsuzaka itself is no great problem, but there’s a difference between taking a lucky dip to find a potential fringe player and chancing your arm in the hope of finding a regular starter.

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