As recently as Tuesday night, even the Yankees were in the dark about Masahiro Tanaka. They’d been scouting the Japanese ace since 2007 and had been in the stands for 15 of his starts in the past year alone. They’d flown eight of their most influential executives and coaches for a face-to-face meeting in early January in Los Angeles and made an elaborate presentation about the perks of playing in pinstripes. And they’d offered the largest contract ever for an international free agent.
Still, the Yankees had no idea whether the key piece to their offseason plan was actually leaning in their direction.
“We had no indications, no inkling,” general manager Brian Cashman said. “There was no information flowing from their end.”
On Tuesday night, the Yankees got the call, and by Wednesday morning, Tanaka was the Yankees’ latest high-profile addition. The seven-year, $155 million contract brings the team’s offseason spending to nearly half a billion dollars.
“Just like anything else, you try to get as much information as you possibly can to fill in the blanks so when you have to make a decision, it’s as informed a decision as you can possibly make,” Cashman said. “… At some point, you still have to make a call and make a judgment. We obviously believe in this player’s talent. It’s nice to see there are a number of major-league teams that believe in that talent similarly.”
After going 24-0 with a 1.27 ERA last season in Japan, Tanaka, 25, was the most coveted free-agent starter this winter, and the bidding reached record numbers after the Japanese posting system was adjusted to cap the posting fee at $20 million, which the Yankees will also pay.
The Yankees long had known that Tanaka was a high-end talent, but figuring out how to sign him was a different sort of challenge. He was posted on Dec. 26, and the Yankees met with him on Jan. 8 as one of several teams participating in a series of face-to-face interviews arranged by agent Casey Close.
Manager Joe Girardi was there, as were pitching coach Larry Rothschild and various heavy hitters in the Yankees’ front office. The presentation included a video tour of Yankee Stadium and a recorded message from iconic Japanese outfielder Hideki Matsui.
“That was our one shot, and we took it very seriously to make sure that we at least left that room feeling like we could look back and feel like we didn’t leave any stone unturned,” 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.”
The rest of the process was mostly silent on both ends; no leaks from the Yankees, and none from Tanaka. When the sides began specific negotiation, Close insisted that other teams were willing to give an opt-out close, so the Yankees followed suit. Tanaka may opt out of his contract after four years.
Cashman said he felt the Yankees had little choice but to include the provision, and, certainly, the Yankees felt they had little choice but to get Tanaka under contract.
Despite losing Robinson Cano, the Yankees had already spent lavishly to plug holes in their lineup, but they had yet to address their thin rotation. CC Sabathia is coming off the worst season of his career, Hiroki Kuroda turns 39 next month, and Ivan Nova has been inconsistent throughout his major-league career.
The Yankees needed depth, they needed impact, and they needed youth. Tanaka provided at least the potential for all three.
“He’s just gotten better and better,” Cashman said. “And then with the competition, it seems like whether it’s the playoffs, the (World Baseball Classic), it seemed like the bigger the game, the more he would step up. The bigger the circumstance in an individual game, he would dial it up.”
Tanaka’s next challenge: Adjust to New York, live up to a record contract and get the game’s most iconic franchise back to the playoffs.
“We’ve obviously tried to address in as many ways as possible, areas of need,” Cashman said. “It’s a 25-man roster, and there’s a lot of areas that needed improvement. I know that ownership has stepped up to allow us to secure a lot of players that should make our fans excited that 2014 is going to be rather different than 2013.”