The Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles have re-signed veteran righty Masahiro Tanaka to a one-year deal worth 475 million yen (roughly $3.6MM), according to the Japan Times and several other media outlets. This will be Tanaka’s third season back in Nippon Professional Baseball with the Golden Eagles, following his stint in MLB with the Yankees from 2014-20.
Now entering his age-34 season, Tanaka rose to prominence as an 18-year-old with the Golden Eagles back in 2007, and established himself as arguably NPB’s best pitcher over his first seven seasons in Japan. That success naturally made Tanaka a hot commodity when he chose to explore a move to the big leagues, as the Golden Eagles posted the right-hander prior to the 2014 season.
The Yankees landed Tanaka with a seven-year, $155MM contract (plus a $20MM posting fee to the Eagles), and he mostly lived up to the hype, posting a solid 3.74 ERA, 23.1% strikeout rate, and a tiny 4.8% walk rate over 1054 1/3 regular-season innings in the majors, and then a 3.33 ERA over 54 frames in the postseason. Somewhat remarkably, most of that production came after a partial tear in his right UCL was discovered midway through the 2014 season, as the discomfort never became great enough for Tanaka to require Tommy John surgery.
Upon entering free agency in the 2020-21 offseason, Tanaka’s first choice was to re-sign with New York, but the Yankees’ chief order of business that winter was resetting its luxury tax penalties by getting under the tax threshold. The Yankees signed Corey Kluber to a one-year, $11MM deal that essentially closed the door on a Tanaka reunion, and the righty then chose to return to his home country rather than explore other options in North America. Tanaka inked a two-year deal with the Golden Eagles that had an opt-out clause last winter, but perhaps due to the lockout that ate up most of the MLB offseason, Tanaka chose to remain in his contract.
This latest pact represents a significant pay cut from Tanaka’s previous deal, as he reportedly earned 900 million yen in both 2021 and 2022. While Tanaka wasn’t quite his ace-level self from his initial stint in NPB, he still had a 3.16 ERA over 318 2/3 innings over the last two seasons, with a drop in strikeouts but continued elite control. Despite these numbers, Tanaka was most focused on his 13-21 win-loss record. As he said during an online news conference, “four wins (in 2021) and then nine (in 2022) are far behind the big expectations the club had for me and are a betrayal of the fans’ hopes too. It’s been a really undignified two years.”
Tanaka’s rather blunt self-assessment would imply that he views the 2023 NPB season as unfinished business, which perhaps explains why there wasn’t any public buzz about a possible return to the majors this offseason. Lack of wins notwithstanding, Tanaka still seems to be pitching well enough that MLB teams might have had interest, especially given the high price tags associated with so many other hurlers in free agency. Of course, it isn’t known if Tanaka was open to pitching in the majors whatsoever, and if so, anywhere besides the Bronx. The Yankees were already pretty deep in rotation options even before signing Carlos Rodon to a six-year, $162MM contract.