Masahiro Tanaka had an otherworldly 24-0 record last season for Rakuten. Credit: Getty Images
The Yankees felt confident they could sell Masahiro Tanaka on accepting an offer higher than any other bidder.
But even with confidence in the Yankee brand and playing in New York and Yankee Stadium, the Yankees left nothing to chance when they met with Tanaka and agent Casey Close for about two hours in Los Angeles on Jan. 8.
“It was more of us presenting to him what we’re about, the direction we’re trying to go and our interest,” general manager Brian Cashman said on a conference call to announce the signing Wednesday afternoon. “I won’t say [it was] as much of a recruiting [pitch] as an educational spot for him but as it was conveyed to me by Casey Close, as I’m sure he conveyed to all clubs, this was really going to be your one time to meet with the player and that’s why we choose to take eight people.”
The group of eight included Cashman, manager Joe Girardi, pitching coach Larry Rothchild, team president Randy Levine, interpreter George Rose and special assistant Trey Hillman, who was previously a manager in Japan. The recruiting also included a phone call from 2009 World Series MVP Hideki Matsui and a video presentation about Yankee Stadium that Cashman compared to an episode of MTV's “Cribs.”
“Normally we’re in a position if somebody wants to get to know you better they come right to your ballpark and you get a chance to show off this great city, this wonderful stadium and all the amenities that come with it,” Cashman said. “We were in a much more difficult spot to wind up traveling somewhere else to sell ourselves. That’s why we didn’t leave any stone unturned.”
Negotiations were kept extremely private to a point where Cashman could not make a prediction if the Yankees would actually land him right up until Tuesday night. Eventually the Yankees' efforts paid off and Tanaka accepted their seven-year, $155 million deal Tuesday night.
The Yankees formally announced the deal Wednesday afternoon and were able to do so in a quicker timeframe than Jacoby Ellsbury, Carlos Beltran and Brian McCann because Tanaka was not required to take a physical.
The deal includes an opt-out clause after the fourth year that Cashman said was made mandatory by Close.
“Am I comfortable offering him 155 million?” Cashman said. “It’s the cost of doing business. I think that no matter when you want to acquire some of the best talent in the world — whether it’s coming from the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, the United States or Japan — obviously the highest talent costs a lot of money.”
The Yankees are comfortable with that amount of money for two reasons. One, because of what their scouting shows and two, because the new posting rules make the maximum release fee $20 million. When the Yankees signed Kei Igawa the blind bidding process cost them $26 million.
Unlike Igawa, Tanaka is younger and had better numbers in Japan.
Tanaka, 25, was 99-35 with a 2.30 ERA, and 1,238 strikeouts over 1,315 innings during 175 career games (172 starts). He threw 53 complete games (18 shutouts) with Rakuten, and allowed .899 hits per inning.
In 2013, Tanaka was 24-0 with a 1.27 ERA (212 innings pitched, 30 earned runs) in 28 games (27 starts), allowing 168 hits and 32 walks with 183 strikeouts. He tossed eight complete games and two shutouts with one save while leading NPB in wins and ERA. In the Japan Series versus the Yomiuri Giants, Tanaka went 1-1 with a 2.37 ERA (19 innings pitched, five earned runs) in three games (two starts) with four walks and 21 strikeouts, including a 160-pitch outing.
Over the past three seasons, Tanaka is 53-9 with a 1.44 ERA, 30 complete games and 11 shutouts in 77 games (76 starts), striking out 593 batters with just 78 walks.
By comparison, Igawa was 27 when he joined the Yankees and had a 91-70 record and a 3.20 ERA over 1,354 innings. Hideki Irabu was the same age and had a 59-59 record, and 3.39 ERA over 1,101 innings.
The Yankees had been scouting Tanaka since his debut in with Rakuten of the Japan Pacific League in 2007. They scouted him in the 2009 World Baseball Classic and saw him pitch 15 times last season.
“He’s just gotten better and better and then with the competition it seems like whether it’s the playoffs and the WBC, it seemed like the bigger the game, the more he would step up,” Cashman said.
There are concerns, including a heavy workload, four off days between starts and narrower strike zone, but the Yankees have seen enough to gamble on the biggest contract ever signed by a Japanese pitcher.
“You always have concerns,” Cashman said. “That’s something that you can’t ignore or deny. ... With the age, the talent, scouting assessments and the pitching market the way it is — it’s certainly something that we’re still willing to take the risk despite acknowledging that there’s a workload there.”