Earlier today, the Yankees gave Masahiro Tanaka the largest ever open-market deal for a right-handed free agent pitcher – a seven-year, $155MM pact. It's the sort of contract that Yankees fans have come to expect from the club over the years, but there were serious doubts heading into this offseason that they would be writing those kinds of checks after about a year of talk of staying under the $189MM luxury tax threshold. Now, with free agents Tanaka, Carlos Beltran (three years, $45MM), Brian McCann (five years, $85MM), and Jacoby Ellsbury (seven years, $153MM) in the fold, it's hard to see the Bombers staying beneath that line. On today's conference call, I asked General Manager Brian Cashman when the Yankees decided that they would scrap their fiscally conservative plan. He responded:
"I think Hal Steinbrenner has spoken to that on a number of occasions now, the new basic agreement provided certain benefits if we were on our way to under $189MM, he conveyed that it was a goal, but he has reiterated that it wouldn't come at the expense of putting together a championship team. I think our fans can recognize that Hal Steinbrenner and Hank Steinbrenner [mean it] when they say they intend to put a team on the field that can compete on a yearly basis."
Indeed, the Yankees showed this winter that they were not going to accept a repeat of last season, which ended with an 85-77 finish and no postseason berth. I asked Cashman if this was the last starting pitcher or significant free agent that the Bombers would add, and while he was largely non-committal, he did acknowledge that "much of the heavy lifting" has already taken place.
Tanaka was widely regarded as the best free agent pitcher on the open market this offseason, despite never having thrown a major league pitch. His upside and his age made him an extremely hot commodity, but his odometer is of concern to some. For instance, the Rakuten Golden Eagles allowed him to toss a 160-pitch complete-game loss in Game 6 of the Japanese championship series before throwing 15 pitches in relief the next day. Cashman says that he and his staff have taken those concerns into account and were willing to forge ahead anyway:
"You always have concerns. That's always something you can't ignore or deny. But, I think that as you can see clearly by the competitve bidding on him as a free agent, with his age, talent, the scouting assessments on him, and the pitching market the way it is, it's certainly something that we're still willing to take the risk by acknowledging, yeah, there's a workload there."
The Yankees, despite their worries, came out on top in the bidding process, but Cashman isn't quite sure how much he beat the second-highest bidder by. The GM was informed that the bidding was "very competitive," but he isn't sure how the other finalists (reportedly including the Dodgers, White Sox, Cubs, and D'Backs) stacked up. He also confirmed that the opt-out clause included in the deal wasn't initially part of their pitch but instead was requested by agent Casey Close. Close told Cashman that all of the other serious offers included an opt-out clause and would more-or-less be mandatory if he hoped to land the hurler.
When asked if he shied away from fellow Japanese star Yu Darvish before the 2012 season due to concerns over some of his fellow countrymen not making the grade, Cashman was adamant that he was very interested in his services. The scouting department was extremely high on the right-hander, but the $50MM+ posting fee that was required was too rich for their blood at the time.
This time around, the Yankees got their man with a much more reasonable $20MM fee, though the total commitment to Tanaka is much higher than the roughly $108MM the Rangers committed to land Darvish ($51.7MM posting fee and $56MM salary guarantee). Needless to say, it's a sizable committment, and one that the Yankees made after years of homework. According to Cashman:
"We started evaluating him back in 2007, certainly paying close attention to him in the '09 [World Baseball Classic]. This year we went to 15 of his games including the WBC and we sent a scout to evaluate him in the playoffs as well. We made a determined effort to know as much as we possibly could."