Hideki Irabu was supposed to be a great pitcher in the Yankee rotation, but that never happened. He never had an ERA under four and had a brutally awful first season when his ERA skyrocketed above seven. Joba Chamberlin was supposed to be an ace. The Nebraskan star had such high expectations that the team had an entire set of rules to keep him healthy. Sadly, for the Yankees the only thing that these rules did was keep him off the mound. He never was able to be a pitcher who was able to eat innings and injuries forced him into bullpen duty. And then there was the 2004 first-round draft pick Phil Hughes. Hughes had some glimpses of hope, most notably winning 18 games in 2010, but injuries and the homerun ball moved him lower and lower down the depth chart. During his contract season last year, the bottom fell out as Hughes went 4-14 with an ERA over five. Not the type of contract year he was looking for.
This season with Masahiro Tanaka, expectations are even higher than the others after he signed a seven year $155 million contract. After having an undefeated 24-0 season in Japan, the Yankees are literally banking on him to be an ace. If he fails, there is a good chance that the team will, too.
At just 25 years old, the club took a big gamble with a pitcher who has zero big league innings. They based their gamble on the belief that Tanka was the best pitcher available on the market and by signing the international free agent, the club didn’t even need to give up a prospect.
The belief that Tanaka is the best is supported in many ways. His career record in Japan is 99-35 and he has only lost nine games in his past three seasons combined. Tanaka’s astonishing career ERA is 2.30 and it is been under two for the past three seasons. Strike outs also come often when he is on the mound. He has averaged 8.5 strikeouts per nine innings in his career, and struck out 241 hitters during 2011. Scouts have raved about his splitter that drops off the table. At Yankee stadium his splitter should be a huge plus pitch. After pitching his team to a championship last season, and pitching in the World Baseball Classic, Tanaka has plenty of big game experience which will be expected to continue in New York.
But with these positives, there are also several concerns. First there is the question of how his game will translate over to the major leagues. Will he be another Yu Darvish or will he pitch like Hideki Irabu? Will he stay healthy throughout the contract? At just 25 years old his arm has already logged 1,315 innings of work. Arms with that much work have a track record of breaking down.
The way the rotation has been the past few seasons, the Yankees don’t need Tanaka to pitch well, they need him to pitch great. Adding him to the Yankee rotation has instantly improved the Yankees chances to compete in the always competitive AL East. With the bloated contract that Tanaka signed, he will be unfairly expected to be an ace from day one. If his transition is smooth, the improved Yankees ball club could be looking at a long October stay.
Statistics Provided by Baseball Reference