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Big Contract, Big Questions For Yankees' Imported Pitcher


From NPR News, it's ALL THING CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel. What would you pay a pitcher who went 24 and 0 last year? Well, Masahiro Tanaka was undefeated last season pitching in the Japan Pacific League and when the 25-year-old right-hander decided he wanted to pitch in the U.S., he sparked a bidding war among Major League Baseball's richest teams and the New York Yankees have won that war with a seven-year $155 million contract.

Why pay that much to a man who's never pitched in the big leagues and what does that mean to the Yankees and the rest of the league? Well, for answers to those questions, we turn to Jonah Keri of Grantland.com. Welcome back to the program.

JONAH KERI: Thanks for having me.

SIEGEL: And first, is Masahiro Tanaka worth the money?

KERI: It's a good question. You can never predict with any certainty, obviously. Certainly pitchers are unpredictable. This guy does have a good track record, though. He's pitched very well in Japan. That bodes well. And the big thing here is that compared to other free agents who usually come out in their 30s, this guy's 25 years old. So it does tend to bode well for some potential longevity. That, combined with his talent, at least makes you somewhat optimistic.

SIEGEL: Now, the Yankees have signed a lot of big name, high priced free agents over the years. How important is this one to the team?

KERI: It's quite important because they've got some tough competition in the American League East if you look at the Boston Red Sox, they obviously just won the World Series and they're going to be good again this year. And the Tampa Bay Rays, who get by with the equivalent of dryer lint compared to the Yankees payroll and revenue stream, are good every year. And, in fact, they might even be the best team in the division this season. So that's a lot of competition.

The Yankees lost Robinson Cano earlier in the off season and they had to make some moves. They signed some other players earlier and I think the Tanaka move should help them as well.

SIEGEL: Now, we have to acknowledge the conspiracy theory that's at work here that some people see in the signing of Tanaka. They link it to the suspension of Alex Rodriguez and perhaps the Yankees', they would say, enthusiasm to see Rodriguez suspended, the money he would otherwise make freed up to sign Tanaka. What do you make of that?

KERI: Well, whether or not the Yankees were enthusiastic did not influence the decision of the arbitrator. I think that's the bottom line. Certainly, they were optimistic. I mean, Alex Rodriguez, even if he was healthy and even if he wasn't accused of PEDs and ultimately suspended, you know, he's almost 40 years old. He's not going to be that effective a player at this stage of his career. And so, of course, you know, they overpaid the guy. To get out of that contract is great even if he was as clean as the driven snow. But the bottom line here is the decision was made independently and, yes, it happened to work out very well for the Yankees.

SIEGEL: I want you to talk about the record of Japanese pitchers in the major leagues and what one can infer from a brilliant season over there in Japan. Yu Darvish was fantastic last year. He's a Japanese pitcher now with the Texas Rangers. But there are lots of pitchers who haven't been so great when they've been signed in the U.S.

KERI: No doubt. And, you know, I would start first by saying that as somebody who's statistically inclined that, you know, there's something called small sample size at work here. There just aren't that many Japanese pitchers that came over. What we can infer from the ones who did is that, of course, it's a mixed bag. Going back, we've got Hideo Nomo who was phenomenal when he came into the big leagues. I mean, he was a sensation in his rookie year with the Dodgers and pitched very well, eventually did peter out.

Then you had Daisuke Matsuzaka a little bit later, not so good. The Red Sox paid him a lot of money. Ultimately, he got hurt and he became ineffective and that didn't work out so well. Darvish has been fantastic and the Rangers did have to pay a high posting fee. They had to pay the Japanese team to get him. But in the end, he's going to be very overpaid. He's making $56 million over six years, about one-third of what Tanaka's getting overall and Darvish is a phenomenal pitcher.

I would say the one warning sign to watch for is that a lot of pitchers who come over from Japan have been worked very hard, sometimes from a very young age, even high school, putting up a lot of pitch counts, a lot of innings so there is a little bit of a concern there. If I was looking at Tanaka and I had to say what is the downside, it's that maybe that workload would start to catch up to him.

SIEGEL: Jonah Keri of Grantland.com, thanks for talking with us.

KERI: Thank you, sir. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.