J-SLANTED: It’s Pinstripes for Japanese Ace

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Masahiro Tanaka

Masahiro Tanaka

By JORDAN IKEDA
RAFU CONTRIBUTOR

Masahiro Tanaka has chosen to play for the New York Yankees.

Can’t say I blame him. New York amplified Jeremy Lin’s success. It allowed Hideki Matsui a chance to win a World Series and be named World Series MVP. It offers worldwide exposure, a franchise willing to spend (just dropped $438 million in contracts this offseason to upgrade the roster), two highly successful Japanese players to help ease the transition, the opportunity to step into the role of the team’s ace from day one.

And…a lot of money.

Ma-Kun signed with New York for seven years and $155 million, which is the highest contract for an international free agent ever—more than twice as much money as Yu Darvish signed for three years ago ($60 million), nearly twice as much money as Godzilla made for his nine-year MLB career ($80 million), and more than the total career MLB earnings of 14-year veteran Ichiro Suzuki ($152 million).

The Yankees’ cost includes the $20 million posting fee that will go to the Rakuten Golden Eagles and brings their total expenditure to $175 million, which is the largest ever for a free-agent pitcher. It also pushes their payroll past the $189 million luxury tax threshold, which means they will be taxed at a 50 percent rate rather than the 12.5 if they had stayed under. (Keep in mind, while it’s a team tax, he’s the most recent big addition that pushed the franchise over.)

Ma-Kun’s deal is the fifth-largest deal for a pitcher in the history of the MLB, trailing only Clayton Kershaw’s historic $215 million deal, Justin Verlander ($180 million), Felix Hernandez ($175 million), and C.C. Sabathia ($161 million).

At $22.1 million a season (this is an average, details of exactly how his salary is structured were not available Wednesday morning), he’s now the 11th-highest-paid player in the MLB — making $100,000 more than reigning back-to-back American League MVP Miguel Cabrera.

In other words, Tanaka got paid.

(Quick side note: Good thing the new posting system stopped the big spenders from hoarding all the Japanese talent…)

In and of itself, there’s nothing wrong with Ma-Kun cashing in. Kershaw will soon be getting $30 million a season. Zack Greinke will make  $26 million this year. Sabathia and King Felix will make $23 million. MLB teams just love giving it away. The difference, however, is that they are all proven MLB commodities. Ma-Kun’s closest exposure to MLB-level competition was in the World Baseball Classic.

There is a lot of pressure that comes with this level of compensation. Even Kershaw, arguably the world’s best pitcher (unarguably the highest paid) admitted as much. In Saturday’s press conference, Kershaw said he “would feel overwhelmed to try and live up to those expectations” when talking about why he only signed for seven years (with an opt-out after five) instead of going for the 10-year, $300 million contract rumored to have been offered.

Ma-Kun not only has to live up to a salary that puts him in the same category as the crème de la crème of MLB pitchers, but he has to live up to New York-sized expectations — which means anything less than a World Series is considered a failure.

There are no expectations like that anywhere else in the MLB outside of Boston. But the Red Sox were never truly serious about committing $100 million to another Japanese starting pitcher. Besides, they just walked away from 2013 with a new, shiny ring on their collective finger — the Yankees missed the playoffs. The Cubs, Diamondbacks, White Sox, and Mariners were all anticipating growing pains. The Angels would’ve been content making it back to the playoffs.

And while the Los Angeles Dodgers have flexed their financial power to show they are serious about a World Series, the truth is the franchise is 26 years away from its last chip and is only in year three of rebuilding what the Boston-parking-lot-billionaire-whose-name-will-never-again-be-used-in-this-column tore down.

If Tanaka had signed with any of them (word has spread that there was one team that actually outbid the Yankees), he would not have had the kind of pressure he now faces.

Look at that any way you like.

He’s a man who craves and thrives off of pressure. After all, we’re talking about the guy who threw 160 pitches in a Game 6 loss during the Japan Series and then came out the next day and closed out Game 7 to seal the win for his team. The guy who won 24 games without a loss. Who worked his way up to become the best pitcher in Nippon Professional Baseball history.

Or, he’s a gee-golly-gosh-darn country boy who excelled for a small- market team, was universally loved and is now in way over his head. Everything Tanaka did turned to gold in Japan. He was a national hero, who was never criticized or scrutinized — at least not on a microscopic-level. The Golden Eagles were an expansion team with zero history. Everything he gave them was cream and cherries.

I don’t want to take anything away from him. By all accounts, he’s a pro’s pro (no Dice-K in him), who works hard, is humble, an ideal teammate, and is extremely talented with a devastating splitter that is tailor-made for the MLB. He’s only 25 years old, has excelled at every level of baseball he has played in, has been consistently excellent (no one-year wonder like Tsuyoshi Nishioka), and just came off the greatest season any professional pitcher has ever had.

But he’s also never faced wave after wave of MLB hitters. And while his splitter is a knockout pitch, his fastball is flat with zero movement and tends to get hung up in the top of the strikezone — the sweet spot for MLB power hitters. He’s also had a massive workload in Japan, is not an ideal size, and has shown a somewhat alarming trend downwards in strikeout ratio over the past three seasons. Furthermore, his closest comparable in the MLB, Hiroki Kuroda, is a really good pitcher, but not a great one (solely in terms of production, Kuroda is a great human being).

I do like how Casey Close, who is Ma-Kun’s agent (and Kershaw’s and Greinke’s), put in a fourth-year opt-out in Tanaka’s contract. It’s smart for Tanaka for several reasons. He’ll be 29, presumably at the height of his powers, and will be able to opt out and look for another massive payday. It also protects him against the Yankees being bad. The Yankees have a roster filled with aging, overpaid players. Their link to the future, Jacoby Ellsbury, is 30 years old and injury-prone. It is a realistic possibility that the Yankees will struggle over the next four years. Tanaka maintains the option to search for greener pastures. He can also opt in and continue to get paid $22 million for three more seasons.

Something else that opt-out clause does, something that probably (hopefully) won’t be talked about much, is how it allows Ma-Kun a way out if he is crushed under the weight of New Yawk expectations. Other Japanese players before have left money on the table. Nishioka walked away from the Twins. Kenji Johjima walked away from the Mariners. If Ma-Kun struggles or is only an above-average pitcher and gets crucified as just another Kei Igawa, he can walk away and go wherever he wants to.

Of course, I hope that doesn’t happen. And there are reasons to remain optimistic.

Tanaka is a terrific talent. Some scouts have said he is the most complete pitcher to come out of Japan. A less powerful, better control/poise Darvish, or a more powerful Kuroda. He’s been successful everywhere he’s ever pitched. He’s also making the transition to America earlier than any other Japanese pitcher (besides Junichi Tazawa, who came straight from high school).

No other Japanese player to come to America has had even one elite- level countryman to help him in his transition. Ma-Kun has two. Kuroda and Ichiro represent 20 years worth of MLB experience. They have run the gamut in terms of what they have collectively gone through — from devastating injury (Kuroda’s head), to Rookie of the Year and MVP hype (Suzuki’s maiden campaign), to playoff chases, to demotions, to trouble with teammates (Ichiro and Carlos Silva), to getting past failed expectations. They have played in every stadium, in every city (probably can find a good Japanese restaurant wherever they go), and have themselves transitioned from the more laid-back West Coast to the intensity of the Big Apple.

But the most important reason for optimism is that the Yankees have lived this exact scenario before and ultimately found World Series success.

Way back in 2003, the best, most universally loved player in Japan had just won a Japan Series. Having accomplished all he could in NPB, this country boy/pro’s pro decided to try his luck in America. He chose New York amidst massive hype. While it took him a few years, he overcame injuries and bad press and down seasons. But he persevered and after six years helped lead the Yankees to another World Series, winning the Series MVP along the way.

The Yankees smartly enlisted Godzilla to reach out to Tanaka and convince him to come to New York.

Whatever Matsui said had some effect because Ma-Kun is indeed coming to New York.

Monster contract — gargantuan expectations — and all.

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