The Mystery of Masahiro Tanaka

The last time the Yankees missed the playoffs they signed CC Sabathia, Mark Teixeira and A.J. Burnett, spent $423.5 million, won 103 regular-season games and won the 2009 World Series.

So when the Yankees missed the playoffs for the second time since 2008 in 2013, watched Lyle Overbay and Vernon Wells fill out the heart of their order for the majority of the season and then watched the Red Sox win the World Series, I didn’t think the goal of staying under a $189 million payroll would be met. Instead of worrying about the $189 million goal, the Yankees signed Brian McCann ($85 million) and Jacoby Ellsbury ($153 million) and after losing Robinson Cano to the Mariners, they signed Carlos Beltran ($45 million).

On Christmas Eve, I wrote My Christmas Wish List. In it, I asked for four things: Something That Resembles A Starting Rotation That Can Compete In the AL East, Masahiro Tanaka, 2013-14 Henrik Lundqvist To Be 2011-12 Henrik Lundqvist and A New Rangers Defense.

Since Christmas Eve, Henrik Lundqvist is 7-2-1 with a 1.97 goals against average and .937 save percentage. In 2011-12, Lundqvist finished the year with a 1.97 goals against average and .929 save percentage. 2013-14 Henrik Lundqvist To Be 2011-12 Henrik Lundqvist? Check.

On Wednesday, the Rangers traded Michael Del Zotto to the Predators for defensive defenseman Kevin Klein. And there are still reports and rumors that Dan Girardi could be traded by the deadline. A New Rangers Defense? Check.

The only things missing from My Christmas Wish List were Something That Resembles A Starting Rotation That Can Compete In the AL East and Masahiro Tanaka and those things would go hand in hand. On Wednesday, prior to the Rangers trading Del Zotto, my list was completed.

The last time the Yankees signed a free-agent Japanese pitcher it was in response to the Red Sox signing Daisuke Matsuzaka, whose gyroball was going to be more effective in the majors than Roy Halladay’s palmball was in MVP Baseball. The decision cost the Yankees $26,000,194 (good thing they threw that extra $194 in there) just for the right to negotiate with Kei Igawa. It then cost them $20 million to sign the left-hander to a five-year deal. And for five years, we got to see Igawa appear in 16 games, make 13 starts and pitch to this magnificent line: 2-4, 71.2 IP, 89 H, 54 R, 53 ER, 15 HR, 37 BB, 53 K, 6.66 ERA, 1.758 WHIP. That’s $213,954.39 per out that Igawa made for the Yankees. But the pitcher my friend Scanlon would refer to as “The Key Master” did pitch 533 innings for Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, so at least the Yankees were giving the employees at Dunder Mifflin a marquee name to call their own.

After the Igawa debacle and the fall of Matsuzaka, the Yankees stayed away from Yu Darvish. Sure, they were in on the bidding, but they only offered a reported posting bid of $15 million ($11,000,194 less than they bid for Igawa) and the Rangers went on to win the rights to Darvish with a bid of $51,703,411. The Yankees’ bid showed that they were doing their work, so they could cite that they made an effort once they inevitably lost out. It was a bid made with no intention of ever wanting to sign Darvish, but a security blanket to pretend like they were involved with Darvish to avoid being second-guessed if Darvish were to work out. He did.

Darvish is 29-18 with a 3.34 ERA in two season with the Rangers, was the AL strikeout king in 2013, allowed the fewest hits per nine innings (6.2) in the AL and finished second in the Cy Young voting. He has been everything that Matsuzaka and Igawa weren’t and everything the Yankees need and want and because of that, Masahiro Tanaka is a Yankee. Darvish’s success led to the much anticipated posting of Tanaka and the abundance of teams being interested in bidding on him that followed (even the Astros though they had a chance). If Darvish had failed with the Rangers, it’s more likely that the Yankees would have used the $22 million annual average salary for Tanaka on Ubaldo Jimenez or Matt Garza.

I’m all for the Tanaka signing and haven’t been this excited about a Yankees offseason in four years when they were coming off the 2009 championship and looking to repeat. But with question marks surrounding Derek Jeter, Mark Teixeira, CC Sabathia and the bullpen, I’m the most nervous about a Yankees offseason that I have been since 2008. The only question mark that isn’t being mentioned when it comes to analyzing the 2014 Yankees is Tanaka, who has $155 million coming to him despite having never thrown a pitch in the majors.

Everything I know about how Masahiro Tanaka pitches I learned from YouTube. I know as much about his “stuff” and “ability” as I do about The Scarlet Pimpernel (I read the Sparknotes for it freshman year of high school). I have read as much as I can about Tanaka and watched as many highlight videos as I could find of him, including one set to “What I Like About You” by The Romantics, but I have no idea how his 24-0, 1.27 season will translate to the majors. No one does. Everyone who has seen him pitch or has scouted Japanese baseball or has played in Japan or has been to Japan has an opinion on how he will do in the majors, but it doesn’t mean anything. Six years ago someone (someone I want to find and heckle) convinced the Yankees front office that it was a good idea to invest $46,000,194 in the first pitcher I have ever seen wear sunglasses on the mound. Tanaka won’t be Kei Igawa because no one can be that bad for that much money. (Please sit down, Carl Pavano.)

On Wednesday, on Mike Francesa’s show, Brian Cashman said, “Tanaka was arguably the best free agent available pitcher on the marketplace, so securing him creates a great deal of excitement as well as hope to land with Nova and Sabathia.”

Cashman is right. All we have right now is “excitement” and “hope” when it comes to the $155 million man who’s not being asked to slot into the Yankees rotation, but to keep it upright. I’m not ready to give Tanaka the potential “ace” status that so many other people are willing to even without knowing what will happen when he pitches in the majors.

For now, I’ll have to spend the next 10 weeks imagining how Tanaka will pitch for the Yankees because for now, it’s the best anyone can do.