Yankees introduce Masahiro Tanaka amidst high expectations
Masahiro Tanaka went 24-0 and led his team to a championship last season in Japan. He likely won’t have it as easy in the United States, but he’s not changing his expectations.
“I wanted to come here and win a championship,” Tanaka said through an interpreter. “The Yankees are a team that’s always in that type of situation. I understand there’s a lot of pressure here.”
The Yankees certainly believe he can pitch like the 2013 Pacific League MVP he was if money is any indication.
“When I take the mound, I feel that I would like to win every single game,” Tanaka said. “Being an ace is something that not myself but the other people label. So basically what I want to do is go out there and compete and do my best.”
But before anyone gets ahead of themselves, especially the rabid Yankee fan base, the prevailing theme from Tuesday’s press conference was one of patience.
“This is a high-end asset that’s available and it’s obviously got some risk because he’s transitioning from Japan,” general manager Brian Cashman said. “So we’ve spoken about those difficult adjustments that are necessary. He has a great deal of ability and we can be getting more than a [No. 3 pitcher]. Maybe it’s a [No. 2]. Maybe it’s a [No. 1] at some point, but I think because of the adjustments that are necessary [we need to be patient].”
The televised portion of the press conference had Cashman saying “this is Steinbrenner big,” while adding the formal introduction of Tanaka would be something that would make former owner George Steinbrenner proud. The press conference was the largest since the team introduced Hideki Matsui in Times Square in 2002.
“I know that because the contract is what it is, the expectations are going to be something, especially on the front end, that I want to alter to some degree — or try to,” Cashman said. “It’s better to have an honest, realistic dialogue with your fans that you run through the media. Whether anybody wants to disagree, that’s fine. Or agree, that’s fine too.
“I want to make sure that people know how difficult this game is over here, and that there should be expectations of growing pains. Just like when I signed players from other clubs and they come to New York from other markets here in the States, there’s growing pains. I just want to make sure to remind everybody, even though they might not want to hear it.”
The Yankee fans may not want to hear to it, especially after seeing their team fork over $155 million for Tanaka only to have him be called a No. 3 starter. But there are many variables going into Tanaka’s transition to the major leagues besides the hitters.
Tanaka will pitch every five days as opposed to every seven and use a bigger baseball than in Japan. Tanaka has used the MLB regulation ball in last year’s WBC and says he’s trying not to dwell on it too much.
“[Pitching every seven days] was pretty normal in Japan,” Tanaka said. “I don’t have regrets doing that. As for the ball, I’m going to have to adjust to that ball and I can’t really overthink right now. That’s the ball I’m going to be using and I just have to make the adjustment.”
The Yankees felt comfortable paying up because it’s very rare for a 25-year-old pitcher to become available on any free agent market let alone the international market. Combined with the obvious gap in their rotation and the overwhelming positive scouting reports, the Yankees felt they had to jump in.
“There’s a lot of players internationally in Cuba and Japan that come through,” Cashman said. “Those reports, they’re really impressive, but those players don’t really become available in their prime years. So a lot of players that you go, ‘Wow, if this player ever becomes available, we got to jump all over this guy.’ Sometimes they never become available. Sometimes when they become available it’s on the back end of their careers later on — much later. But in his case, he’s 25 and he’s in his prime and he became available in a unique circumstance in the posting system.”
Cashman said besides the glowing scouting reports coming to his desk attracting him to Tanaka was his presence. It reminded him of Orlando Hernandez, who was at least a decade older and promptly went 12-4 and won three straight championships after defecting from Cuba.
Hernandez did not have a fellow Cuban in the Yankee rotation but succeeded nonetheless. Tanaka does have a countryman in Hiroki Kuroda.
The Yankees believe that will help and give them a chance to get their money’s worth on the most expensive international contract in baseball history.
“One thing that I feel like I’ve seen from Japanese players is they feel a little bit more weight representing their country,” manager Joe Girardi said. “They kind of pave the way for the next guy and the next guy and I think that trying to temper down those expectations of what you have to do is important and for me the biggest thing is just be yourself.”
For Tanaka, being yourself means pitching well regardless of the rotation spot the Yankees place him in.
Follow Yankees beat writer Larry Fleisher on Twitter @LarryFleisher.