Masahiro Tanaka isn’t the biggest free-agent acquisition in the storied history of the New York Yankees. He might not even be the most famous Japanese import to don the iconic pinstripes.
But he’s by far the biggest attraction as the Yankees opened spring training last Saturday. After signing a seven-year, $155 million contract on January 22, Tanaka has had a few meet-and-greet sessions in America, including two in three days after he reported to the team’s camp in Tampa, Florida, last week.
“As a player, I feel very honored to get this much attention,” Tanaka said through an interpreter after his first workout with the team Saturday. “Some of the fans were cheering today, and I was very happy to receive those cheers. At the same time, I understand that I haven’t given out any results on the field yet, so my focus is to train and go out there, try to get those results.”
Tanaka’s transition no doubt is eased by the presence of other Japanese players on the team, particularly fellow pitcher Hiroki Kuroda, a 39-year-old right-hander who’s entering his seventh Major League Baseball season, the third with the Yankees. Tanaka threw 32 pitches in his first bullpen session, side-by-side with Kuroda.
Yankees manager Joe Girardi said he hadn’t planned on having Kuroda mentor Tanaka, but was glad to see the veteran pitcher taking the initiative. Kuroda, for his part, said he was only paying it forward after getting help from Takashi Saito when he joined the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2008.
“I’m confident that he’s going to do well here,” Kuroda, whose final year in Japan was Tanaka’s rookie season, said through an interpreter. “The potential problem is how he gets acclimated in the culture of the major leagues. That’s going to be the key.”
“When you have trouble communicating with teammates, that can be a great struggle. Japanese baseball utilizes a lot of English words, but there are certain words that are different. For example, a ‘slide step’ is called a ‘quick motion’ in Japan. I had to relearn everything.”
Both Tanaka and Kuroda will be part of a retooled pitching rotation that was a major reason for the Yankees’ disappointing 2013 season. New York finished 12 games out of first place in the AL East and missed the playoffs for only the second time in the past 18 seasons.
While CC (cq) Sabathia remains the team’s nominal “ace” and presumably will be the opening-day starter, the former Cy Young winner is coming off a 14-13 season with a career-worst 4.78 ERA. There is a strong possibility that Tanaka would be entrusted with a leading role, even if not immediately.
“As far as Tanaka taking on ace status, that is far too ahead of the deal,” George A. King III, a longtime Yankees beat writer for the New York Post, told The Diplomat. “He hasn’t faced a big league hitter yet. But after spending $175 million on him the Yankees no doubt believe he has the ability to pitch in the front of the rotation at some point during the life of the contract.”
Tanaka’s contract, in addition to the $20 million posting fee the Yankees paid to his Japanese club Rakuten Eagles, is the largest free-agent deal this offseason. Yu Darvish, the previous high-profile Japanese acquisition by MLB, even chuckled Tuesday that Tanaka is overpaid, though he later insisted that he said it in jest.
Handling expectations and the throngs of media and fans will be part of the bargain for Tanaka during and after the six-week spring training. He was greeted by more than 200 members of the media at his introductory press conference in New York, including a large Japanese contingent.
The Yankees have had Japanese stars in the past (and present), including the 2009 World Series MVP Hideki Matsui and the legendary Ichiro Suzuki, who’ll be entering his third season in New York after turning 40. But Tanaka’s arrival was easily the biggest media circus since “Godzilla” (Matsui) hit Gotham in 2003.
Tanaka’s decision to charter a Boeing 787 to carry his entourage (him, his wife, three other people and his dog) from Tokyo to New York certainly added to the circus-like atmosphere. And as a way to help Yankees fan to get to know their new star, the team-owned YES Network showed a couple of Tanaka’s games from last season, during which he went 24-0 and led the Eagles to the Japan Series championship.
Yankees brass tried to temper some of the expectations by claiming that Tanaka was signed to be a No. 3 starter and cautioned that he will be slowly eased into his new role. But nobody is buying that.
“If the Yankees were concerned about over-use in Japan they wouldn’t have given Tanaka what they did,” King added succinctly.