NEW YORK — Two weeks ago time was short when the Yankees were granted an opportunity to meet with Masahiro Tanaka and agent Casey Close in Los Angeles.
Granted just two hours to make a convincing presentation and sell pitching for the Yankees, baseball’s winningest franchise sent a contingent of eight, including general manager Brian Cashman, manager Joe Girardi, pitching coach Larry Rothschild and team president Randy Levine. That was before offering a contract.
Known to hold the highest offer, the Yankees did not find out until late Tuesday night that Tanaka accepted the richest contract ever for a free agent pitcher — a seven-year, $155 million deal with an opt-out clause in 2017, when Tanaka will be just 29 years old. The deal was officially announced Wednesday afternoon.
Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington said Tuesday night that his team had discussions with Tanaka’s representatives, but Boston was never considered a serious contender for the pitcher’s services.“It was more of us presenting to him what we’re about, the direction we’re trying to go and our interest,” Cashman said Wednesday afternoon on a conference call. “I won’t say as much of a recruiting 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 chose to take eight people.“Normally we’re in a position if somebody wants to get to 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. 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.”
So while they could sell the Yankee brand, use pinstripe success stories such as Hideki Matsui, Hiroki Kuroda and the fact that Yankee games are broadcast back to Japan as recruiting tools, they really had no idea what drove Tanaka’s decision. Once Cashman found out the offer had been accepted over competing bids from the Los Angeles Dodgers, Chicago Cubs, Chicago White Sox and Arizona Diamondbacks, he didn’t mind doling it out. All the details and back-channel work paid off.
“Am I comfortable offering him 155 million?” Cashman said of the contract, which doesn’t include an additional $20 million posting fee for negotiating rights. “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 had been scouting Tanaka since his debut in with Tohoku Rakuten of the Japan Pacific League in 2007. They followed up by scouting him in the 2009 World Baseball Classic and saw him pitch 15 times last season. It was enough to justify the fifth-largest contract for a starting pitcher in Major League Baseball, Cashman believes.
“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.”
The numbers seem to back up Cashman’s assessment.
The 25-year-old was 99-35 with a 2.30 ERA 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.
That’s Tanaka’s whole body of work but his recent numbers stand out even more, especially when compared against the remaining free agent market for starting pitchers.
In 2013, Tanaka was 24-0 with a 1.27 ERA (212. IP, 30 ER) 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 vs. the Yomiuri Giants, Tanaka went 1-1 with a 2.37 ERA (19 IP, 5 ER) in three games (two starts) with four walks and 21 strikeouts and that series included a 160-pitch outing.
Over the past three seasons, Tanaka has gone 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.
Of course there are concerns such as the workload but the differences are that in Japan, pitchers start every seven days as opposed to the five days in the United States and that strike zone is narrower.
“You always have concerns,” Cashman said. “I think I can speak for anybody. That’s something that you can’t ignore or deny but despite that clearly by the competitive bidding on him as a free agent 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 yeah there’s a workload there.”
Much like the meeting with Tanaka, the Yankees have seemingly left no stone unturned in the offseason, starting with signings of Brian McCann, Jacoby Ellsbury and Carlos Beltran. They have invested more than $300 million in salary after missing the playoffs for the second since 1993 and did so after ratings dropped and attendance declined to its lowest levels since 2000.
“We’ve tried to address as many ways as possible, areas of need,” Cashman said. “It’s a 25-man roster and there’s a lot of areas that needed improvement and I know that ownership has stepped up to allow us to secure a lot of players that should make our fans excited that 2014 is going to be rather different than 2013.”
It all counters the public stance of attempting to meet a $189 million payroll threshold which would have avoided the payment of luxury tax. They will save about $24 million by not paying suspended Alex Rodriguez, but the Yankees were unable to meet the stated savings goal because the farm system is not as fertile as the team thought. Of course, it always fuels motivation to see the American League East rival Boston Red Sox parade the World Series trophy.
“I think our fans that Hal Steinbrenner and Hank Steinbrenner mean what they say when they intend to put a team on the field that can contend on a yearly basis,” Cashman said.
The emphatic answer to the question entering the offseason — “Will the Yankees spend big?’’ — was answered emphatically.
Now the answer is whether spending big equals winning big.
There is little disputing the Yankees are better with the many acquisitions, but they also lost Rodriguez, second baseman Robinson Cano, closer Mariano Rivera and outfielder Curtis Granderson.
The infield, with Derek Jeter and Mark Teixeira coming off serious injuries, is an unknown until proven otherwise.
The Tanaka signing fills a major need but at a steep price and considerable risk given the unknown variables. Or, business as usual in the Bronx, where the bosses are certain there was no other choice.