Tanaka signs $155 million contract with Yankees
Pitcher's seven-year contract includes opt-out clause that can be exercised after 2017
NEW YORK -- When the Yankees were invited to exchange pleasantries with Masahiro Tanaka in Los Angeles earlier this month, they decided to put on a full-court press, hoping to make a strong impression during their two hours of face time with the prized right-hander.
The Yankees shipped an eight-person contingent to California to sell Tanaka and his agent, Casey Close, on the appeal of pitching in the Bronx, proudly showcasing a presentation that was highlighted by a taped message from Hideki Matsui and an MTV "Cribs"-style tour of Yankee Stadium.
It was appreciated, but nothing spoke louder than committing to make the 25-year-old one of the richest pitchers in history, months before he throws his first Major League pitch. The Yanks took a victory lap on Wednesday, learning that they had the winning bid in the Tanaka sweepstakes.
"They gave me the highest evaluation and are a world-famous team," Tanaka told the Associated Press in Japan on Thursday.
Tanaka's deal with the Yankees is worth $155 million over seven seasons, and it includes an opt-out clause that can be exercised after the 2017 season, a perk that was insisted upon by the pitcher's camp. Tanaka also will be granted a full no-trade clause.
"That was our one shot, and we took it very seriously," general manager Brian Cashman said. "It might have been overkill, but we felt like if that's the case, we'd rather go all out than fall short wishing we did a little bit more."
Yankees managing general partner Hal Steinbrenner said that he had decided the team needed another starting pitcher in order to be viewed as a championship-caliber club, a void that he believes will be filled by Tanaka.
"This is a great young player, one of the best Japan has produced," Steinbrenner said on the YES Network. "He's played on the big stage, he has been in pressure situations. He's going to do great with all that. He's going to be great for us."
Tanaka went 24-0 with a 1.27 ERA for the Rakuten Golden Eagles in 2013, leading his club to a Japan Series title. The Yanks have been scouting Tanaka since his rookie season of 2007, and they evaluated him in person multiple times last summer, having been drawn both to his on-field talent and his businesslike demeanor.
Tanaka and Close completed the contract with the Yankees well ahead of Friday's 5 p.m. ET deadline. The process was sped along because Tanaka underwent a physical exam earlier this month Los Angeles, where he was greeted on Jan. 8 by Yanks officials.
That group consisted of team president Randy Levine, Cashman, manager Joe Girardi, assistant GMs Billy Eppler and Jean Afterman, pitching coach Larry Rothschild, special assistant Trey Hillman and translator George Rose.
"They spent about 2 1/2 hours with Tanaka and Casey Close," a person with knowledge of the meeting said. "It was very, very good."
The Yankees also tapped a living legend in Matsui, who taped a message for Tanaka during the regular season and also placed a telephone call to Tanaka. During their conversation, Matsui praised the value of playing for a storied organization and described the appeal of calling New York home.
"We had to sell ourselves from afar, so we tried every option and prepared for that," Cashman said. "We showed video and left a lot of material. We were there to answer any questions. Each of us had a chance to speak about what the Yanks are about and what we hope to be again, and [how] we'd love to have him join us to be a part of that."
Speaking at the Yankees' complex in Tampa, Fla., on Wednesday, Rothschild said that Tanaka did not say much during the Los Angeles meeting, but the Yanks' group still came away encouraged and impressed by Tanaka.
"You can tell he's on top of what he wants and what he wants to do," Rothschild said. "The whole process was definitely above board and everything. I've watched tape of him and everything else, so we'll see."
The total value of Tanaka's contract is the fifth-highest for a pitcher in Major League history, falling in line behind those of the Dodgers' Clayton Kershaw ($215 million), the Tigers' Justin Verlander ($180 million), the Mariners' Felix Hernandez ($175 million) and the Yankees' CC Sabathia ($161 million).
Tanaka also received serious interest from the Dodgers, Angels, Cubs, White Sox, Astros and D-backs. Because of the secretive negotiation process, the Yanks did not realize they had the winning bid until after midnight ET Wednesday.
"I was told after it concluded that we were the highest, and that it was very competitive and the other teams were in the vicinity of our team," Cashman said.
The Yankees will pay a $20 million posting fee to Rakuten under the terms of baseball's revised posting system with Nippon Professional Baseball, and they designated left-hander David Huff for assignment to make room for Tanaka on their 40-man roster.
Tanaka will join a starting rotation that projects to also include Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda and Ivan Nova, with Tanaka likely slotting in as the No. 2 or No. 3 starter. Asked if he believes Tanaka can be an ace, Cashman replied, "We'll find out. He's got a great deal of ability."
Since debuting as an 18-year-old with Rakuten in 2007, Tanaka has compiled a record of 99-35 with a 2.30 ERA in 175 games (172 starts). He has recorded 1,238 strikeouts in 1,315 career innings, a workload that carries a whiff of risk but one that Rothschild said he is "not overly concerned about."
"He's got an assortment of quality pitches," Rothschild said. "He's fastball, slider, split, throws a cutter, too, and shows arm strength. He showed tenacity on the mound. When he got in tougher situations, you could see he dialed it up -- things like that. The personality, from all accounts and what I've seen, is good. He's competitive."
Former Yankees pitcher Darrell Rasner played with Tanaka for the last five seasons and believes that Tanaka will succeed in the big leagues. He raved in particular about Tanaka's splitter, calling it "an absolute strikeout pitch."
"I don't know how guys even fouled the ball off sometimes," Rasner said. "It looks like it starts at their waist and hits the dirt in front of the plate. I don't understand it. It's nasty."
Longtime big league outfielder Andruw Jones also played with Tanaka last season and said that he believes Tanaka is ready to try his luck against big league hitters.
"The record speaks for itself," Jones said. "All he's done [in] Japan, I think, is enough for him. He was the best pitcher the last three years in Japan, so it's time for him to come to the States and show the skills that he's got in the Major Leagues."
The signing ensures that the Yanks' payroll figure will exceed $189 million for the 2014 season. Steinbrenner spoke often about how it was a goal, but not a mandate, to get below that figure in order to take advantage of luxury-tax benefits.
But Steinbrenner also said repeatedly that the payroll goal would not come at the expense of fielding a championship-caliber team, especially after an 85-win campaign in which the club missed the playoffs for just the second time in the past 19 seasons.
In response, the Yankees spent a combined $438 million to rebuild their roster, also adding Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann and Carlos Beltran. Now, with Tanaka on board, they appear to be that much closer to keeping the lights on at Yankee Stadium in October.
"We did the same thing in '08," Steinbrenner said. "We had a lot of money come off the payroll and we put just about every cent of it back in. That's what the fans expect, that's what we know they expect and that's what has to be done if you want to be a contender every year."