The most hyped Japanese import to hit American shores since the Walkman has finally confirmed his destination. Masahiro Tanaka picked Broadway over Hollywood.
At the center of a bidding war that forced baseball’s offseason activities to a virtual standstill, the Japanese right-hander agreed to a seven-year, $155 million contract Wednesday with the New York Yankees, making his deal by far the most expensive for an overseas player in Major League Baseball history.
Tanaka’s choice apparently came down between the Yankees and the Los Angeles Dodgers, according to industry sources, even though the Chicago Cubs offered the highest bid. In addition to the $155 million for Tanaka, the Yankees will have to pay the Rakuten Eagles, his Japanese club, a $20 million posting fee.
So why did Tanaka pick New York over Los Angeles?
During his whirlwind visit to L.A. last week when he met with officials of several clubs and underwent a physical, Tanaka stressed that he’d like to be in a place where culturally it would make him and his wife – pop singer Mai Satoda – more comfortable. It was rumored that Satoda had a preference for the West Coast.
But in the end, the Yankees might have been more persuasive. Besides being the most famous baseball club in the world and playing in America’s largest media market, they are also more desperate. Whereas the Dodgers have a star-studded pitching staff headed by two-time National League Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw, the Yankees’ lack of arms was a major factor in their missing the playoffs last year.
The Yankees also enlisted the retired Hideki Matsui, who was the World Series MVP in 2009 when he led New York to victory, to make their case to Tanaka. That, and the fact that two other Japanese players are also on the Yankees roster – the legendary Ichiro Suzuki and fellow pitcher Hiroki Kuroda – also might have influenced Tanaka’s decision.
Yankees owner Hal Steinbrenner made it clear the club went all out to get Tanaka.
“I felt we needed another starter,” Steinbrenner told the New York Post. “So this should not be a surprise because (Tanaka) was the best free-agent pitcher available. He is one of the greatest players Japan has ever produced. He is tough. He has thrived under pressure. He will fit in well to New York.”
The Yankees’ total package of $175 million dwarfed the previous record for a Japanese acquisition. In 2012, the Texas Rangers signed Yu Darvish to a six-year, $60 million contract and paid the Nippon Ham Fighters, his Japanese club, a posting fee of $51.7 million.
Darvish has turned out to be a great investment – and compared to Tanaka’s deal, a bargain – for Texas. He immediately emerged as the ace of the Rangers’ staff, was selected to the All-Star Game in both 2012 and 2013, and finished second in American League Cy Young balloting after leading the AL in strikeouts last season.
Tanaka’s statistics in his last three seasons in Japan compare favorably with Darvish’s. Last year, Tanaka set a Nippon Professional Baseball record by going 24-0 (winning 30 games over two seasons) with a 1.27 ERA. He also led the Eagles to their first Japan Series title, saving the clinching Game 7 against the Yomiuri Giants.
But how he will perform in the U.S. remains to be seen. Japanese players – especially pitchers – have become a fixture in MLB since Hideo Nomo signed with the Dodgers in 1995. But their record in America has been a mixed bag.
Daisuke Matsuzaka, who preceded Darvish as the first Japanese player to command a $100 million package, was generally considered a bust for the Red Sox. But Boston could not have won the World Series last season without its two Japanese stalwarts in the bullpen, setup man Junichi Tazawa and closer Koji Uehara.
Daily Yomiuri’s John Gibson, an American journalist who’s covered Japanese baseball since 1995, preaches patience with Tanaka.
“We can’t judge him off one game or one season,” Gibson said. “Uehara, (Seattle’s Hisashi) Iwakuma and Kuroda have gotten better with time while Daisuke, (Kei) Igawa and (Hideki) Irabu (both former Yankees) probably weren’t all that great to start with anyway.”
Tanaka’s decision to sign with New York guarantees that he will be under the most intense microscope in American sports. With the Yankees missing the postseason for only the second time in 19 seasons in 2013, he will be viewed as a savior as soon as he puts on the famed pinstripes. And besides the always-frenzied New York media, a throng of Japanese press will follow his every move, on and off the field.
In many ways, he’s already made his impact. The offseason free-agent market froze over the past few weeks as clubs waited on his decision and the size of his contract. His Twitter account has exploded with American followers, to the point where an innocent tweet on Tuesday about his avatar became news from coast to coast.
Tanaka’s former Eagles teammate Casey McGehee, who signed with the Miami Marlins this offseason, says Tanaka is well-equipped to handle the spotlight.
“I think he’s used to every little bit of his life being reported on, or tried to be reported on,” McGehee told MLB.com. “So that part of it, I don’t think there is going to be any problem… I think he will actually be more comfortable in New York, where he kind of blends in.”
Samuel Chi is the Editor of RealClearSports and RealClearWorld. His column on world sport appears every Thursday in The Diplomat.