Tuesday, March 4, 2014

New York Yankees need Masahiro Tanaka to make immediate impact

The New York Yankees did not sign Masahiro Tanaka to a seven-year, $155 million contract to be a middle of the rotation starter. These are ace-status figures, given to pitchers who have very high expectations. No matter how the Yankees try to spin it, they need Tanaka to make an immediate and lasting impact.

Beyond the massive contract, the Yankees doled out $20 million in posting fees, so the notion of Tanaka having a middle of the rotation ceiling that general manager Brian Cashman tried to dish out after the 25-year-old hurler was signed was nothing more than an effort to temper prognostications. The team knows very well that if Tanaka’s production falls short of top of the rotation results, the pact will be looked at as a failure.

Some will argue that the transitional learning curve should have some impact on his production in 2014 and of course they would be right. But, no one, including Tanaka, is going to be happy with a 10-10 record and a 4.50 ERA in his inaugural pinstripe season. Such mediocrity won’t help the Yankees in 2014 and truthfully would throw up red flags for the remaining six years of the contract.

On the flip side, presuming 20 wins and a stellar ERA is not reasonable either. Tanaka will be judged, right or wrong, based on what we know from the back of his Rakuten Golden Eagles baseball card. That card reads potential superstar. Of course, by now we understand that what happens in Japan does not completely translate to the United States in every circumstance. For every Hiroki Kuroda and Yu Darvish there is a Hideki Irabu and Kei Igawa.

As I’ve discussed in previous articles about CC Sabathia and Kuroda, the Yankees’ rotation is going to need each member to be at the top of their game consistently throughout the season. There isn’t one person slated for the rotation who is a sure thing, Tanaka included. So beyond the pressures of moving to MLB, Tanaka needs to perform at a high level if the Yankees are to be successful in 2014.

Early reports out of Yankees camp suggest Tanaka comes as advertised. His splitter is the headliner of a seven-pitch repertoire. Team catchers and opposing hitters (albeit his teammates for the most part) have been impressed with the pitch, roundly labeled as one of the best in the business, no matter the league.

He has thrown just two innings thus far and the outing was a success. He allowed zero runs, two hits, walked none and struck out three batters this past Saturday. He used all seven pitches among his 32 total. He will be on the mound again Thursday to face the Philadelphia Phillies, looking to increase his workload and continue advancing.

I sense Tanaka will have a fine season. I do not expect anything near the domination he demonstrated last season in Japan when he went 24-0 with a 1.27 ERA and I do not anticipate a mediocre 10-10 record and 4.50 ERA which I alluded to earlier. I think a conservative bet is 13 wins and an ERA in the 3.70 range.

Obviously such production would spell a nice opening season in the big leagues for Tanaka, but the Yankees actually need more if they want to be back in the playoffs. You see, I think Tanaka has the best upside of the group and the potential to be great. Further, I feel Tanaka must show almost immediately that he has ace material (across the board, not just the split) and that he can be the anchor of this staff if Sabathia and Kuroda cannot.

At this point it looks clear that he is a talented pitcher and has the potential to be a Darvish-type in terms of success on the mound. It is also readily apparent the media attention is not going to bother him. He seems adept at handling the throngs of cameras and recorders constantly in his face. He appears fully capable of managing any outside pressures of his circumstance along with any demands he has placed on himself.

In the end, Tanaka like any other player, will be judged by his performance. Fair or not, a slow progression is not going to help the Yankees in 2014. He needs to challenge Sabathia and Kuroda for the top spot in the rotation right away if the club hopes to get back to the postseason.

The Yankees did not invest $175 million for a middle of the rotation pitcher. He is being paid like an ace starter and the team needs him to pitch like one from the start.

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Christopher Carelli is a freelance sports writer/editor and the Director of Content Strategy for Sportsideo. Connect with Chris on Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and LinkedIn.