Yanks needed a Hiro -- and got him

  • Ian O'Connor [ARCHIVE]
  • ESPNNewYork.com | January 22, 2014

The New York Yankees were not trying to flex their marketplace muscles before their town was taken over by Peyton Manning and Richard Sherman (Or is it Richard Sherman and Peyton Manning?). Giving $155 million to Masahiro Tanaka was not the Yankees' idea of a parting shot, or a statement on the magnitude of their brand before the Broncos and Seahawks barreled into Dodge and made them feel as small as the coin used for the opening Super Bowl toss.

Masahiro Tanaka
AP Photo/Kyodo NewsSigning Masahiro Tanaka shows Hal Steinbrenner's Yankees are more serious about winning than they are about their budget.

The Yankees had no choice here. They had to get their man. Their whole being is built around their oft-quoted mission statement of fielding a championship-grade team every season, and they knew that sticking with their pitching staff in April would've represented a mission unaccomplished.

You can't tell your fan base that all you care about is winning the whole thing, and then trot out a diminished CC Sabathia as your Opening Day ace.

So the Yankees sent a recruiting party to Los Angeles to court Tanaka, a party nearly big enough to fill the bleachers in the Bronx. Team president Randy Levine, general manager Brian Cashman, manager Joe Girardi and interpreter George Rose were among those in the meeting, as were special assistant Trey Hillman, who managed in Japan, and executive Jean Afterman, who was instrumental in the recruitment of Hideki Matsui, the 2009 World Series MVP. Matsui put in a call to Tanaka, too, and was part of a video presentation about Yankee Stadium that Cashman likened to a tour on "MTV Cribs."

It didn't hurt that the pitcher's agent, Casey Close, understood how much the Yankees' brand meant to his signature client, Derek Jeter.

Cashman said the Yankees had been scouting their man since 2007, and that Tanaka kept getting better and kept performing when the stakes were high. "He would dial it up," Cashman said.

During two hours and change in their pitch meeting, the Yankees loved what they heard from Tanaka. "He's a remarkable kid," one team source familiar with the meeting said. "He's very confident and focused and determined, but quiet, like Matsui. He wants to be the best on the biggest stage. He's not afraid of New York at all.

"There's nobody like Tanaka in the system, a 25-year-old ace, and there's nobody like that on the free-agent market. So you had to go for it."

Yes, the Yankees did. Are they sure that Tanaka, 24-0 with a 1.27 ERA last season in Japan, is strong enough to lead their starting rotation to the American League East title, never mind Ring No. 28? No, of course not. The Yankees realize there's a chance Tanaka is little more than a solid middle-of-the-rotation guy with a top-of-the-rotation paycheck.

"We were willing to take the risk," Cashman said.

They were willing to pay for the rewards, too. Including the $20 million posting fee, their gamble adds up to seven years and $175 million, or the same amount of years and money they offered Robinson Cano before Jay Z altered his Empire State of mind. Cano was a safer bet, even for the $240 million Seattle paid him, because he'd already done something Tanaka had not:

Proved he can play at a very high level in the big leagues.

But like quarterbacking in football, pitching is everything in baseball, and the third-place, 85-77 Yankees understood they weren't going to make up those 12 games on the Red Sox with Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda and Ivan Nova as their top three arms. So they couldn't let the Dodgers or the Cubs or anyone else beat them to Tanaka, not after they saved all of that money on the Alex Rodriguez suspension, and not after Hal Steinbrenner repeated his late father's blood oath that he would never let a budget stand in the way of a parade.

Young Steinbrenner already had laid out $283 million on free agents Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann and Carlos Beltran, and another $16 million to bring back Kuroda. And yet after losing his best player to the Mariners, Steinbrenner felt pressured to prove he has his old man's stomach for the fight.

The Yankees had spent as much time and energy on getting under the $189 million luxury-tax threshold in 2014 as half the NBA spent on getting under the salary cap to pursue LeBron James in 2010. They had their valid reasons -- namely, saving tens of millions that they swore they would reinvest in talent in the very near future -- but the fans had their valid reasons for wanting more, too, and wanting it right now, starting with the obscene prices they pay for tickets and parking and concessions at the ballpark.

So the Yankees forgot about the luxury-tax line about as quickly as they've forgotten about A-Rod, and went all-in on Tanaka's split-fingered fastball. The kid has thrown a ton of innings for his age, the ball is slightly smaller in Japan, and yes, the Yanks still remember how they were burned by the money spent on Kei Igawa and Hideki Irabu.

"But this isn't about any other player," the team source said. "If this guy is what the scouts say he is, he'll be among the top pitchers in the game."

Cashman said the Yankees were the highest bidders, if not by much, and that the fourth-year opt-out clause was a showstopper. The escape clause is there just in case the 2017 Tanaka is looking like a right-handed version of another Close client, Clayton Kershaw. Not that the Yankees are thinking they just signed another Kershaw. In fact, they're not even sure they signed another Yu Darvish.

But they're certain they wouldn't have won the World Series with whatever's left of Sabathia at the top of the rotation. By investing $175 million in Tanaka, and by blowing up their budget, the Yankees reminded a region preparing for the Super Bowl storm that they'll always be the home team willing to do anything in pursuit of a parade.

Peyton Manning and Richard Sherman, the floor is yours.

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