The Yankees have been criticized for their spending for many years now, usually without much objective justification. Sure, it's been frustrating for fans of other teams, but they played in baseball's biggest market, made the most money and put a good chunk of it back into improving the ballclub, within the rules of the system. There's nothing particularly wrong with that.
This offseason, though, culminating in Wednesday's announcement of an expectedly huge seven-year, $155 million deal for Japanese ace Masahiro Tanaka, their spending has become a bit more irritating and slightly more troubling than usual. Irritating (if harmlessly so) because, for years now, we've been hearing about "Plan 189" -- admittedly always "a goal, not a mandate" -- which was supposed to save the Yankees tens of millions in luxury taxes dollars if they could stay under a $189 million payroll in 2014; which hampered the team during their mediocre 2013; which they inexplicably seemed to expect their fans to be concerned about; and which clearly, now, was all hat and no cattle. We'll never get those brain cells back.
And the Tanaka deal is at least somewhat troubling, in a way that the Yankees' many previous spending binges were not, because it might not have happened without the suspension of Alex Rodriguez, their star third baseman turned supervillain. Rodriguez has claimed all along that the Yankees were eager to get rid of him because they didn't want to pay his $25 million 2014 salary. And while we can't say for sure if that's the case -- after all, this team still needs a capable third baseman -- and it doesn't change Rodriguez's many real transgressions regardless, it does seem that Masahiro Tanaka's deal is The Contract That A-Rod's Suspension Built. That's a bit uncomfortable.
What's much more comfortable now than it was Tuesday is the state of the Yankees' rotation. Setting aside awkward off-field issues, this makes 2014 in the Bronx significantly brighter. It's always difficult to project how a NPBL star's skills will transfer to the major leagues, of course, and $155 million is a lot of money for a pitcher with no major-league experience. Tanaka benefitted from the fact that the most recent Japan-to-MLB player dominating the public consciousness is Yu Darvish, and not Daisuke Matsuzaka - or Kei Igawa. (Darvish, whose contract, signed just two years ago, is for six years and $56 million, looks like an even more remarkable bargain now).
But Tanaka's recent stretch of play in Japan has been truly extraordinary. Forget that he famously was 24-0 last season -- he also had a 1.27 ERA, struck out 183 and walked 32 in 212 innings. Over seven years in Japanese professional ball, he has a 2.37 ERA, has been in generally good health and showcased excellent control. While anything resembling his 2013 would be much too much to expect in his first year in America, his upside is still a lot more up than Bronson Arroyo's, Matt Garza's, or the rest of the next-best options who will be snapped up by pitching-starved teams over the next days and weeks. Arroyo can help your rotation, but he's not going to wow anyone; Tanaka might well turn out to be a number three starter (a valuable enough commodity), but he has a chance to be more. And, at 25, amazingly enough, he might well end up being the youngest player on the Yankees' roster next season.
The real question for the Yankees is probably not whether Tanaka makes them better -- given the previous state of their rotation (Sabathia and Kuroda and pray for the meteorological event of your choice) it would be hard for him not to -- but whether he's enough, in conjunction with new acquisitions Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann, and Carlos Beltran, to get them out of their middle-of-the-pack slump and back into contention in the AL East.
The Yankees still lack anything resembling an impressive second or third baseman, and New York's shortstop (Derek Jeter) and first baseman (Mark Teixeira) are both coming off serious injuries that leave their reliability this season in doubt. (Tanaka's contract and its shattering of the $189 limit also seems to indicate that the Yankees were simply not all that interested in keeping second baseman Robinson Cano, their best hitter last year by a mile). They are still enormously reliant on Hiroki Kuroda, who will be 39, and on Sabathia, who is 33 and had by far the worst year of his career in 2013. Meanwhile the Red Sox are a powerhouse fresh off a World Series win, Tampa and the Orioles are threatening, and the Blue Jays can't be as bad as they were last year.
Still, this is a Yankee team with a lot more talent than the one that tried to save money in 2013 and bled attendance while going a fairly lucky 85-77. (As it should be, considering the team committed to $438 million in contracts for four players this winter, not to mention significant luxury tax penalties, which we can mercifully stop pretending to care about now.) Yankee haters have more fuel than ever, but that never bothered the team or its fans any. And all of us will get to watch with interest as the best pitcher in the NPBL last season sets out to show major league baseball what he can do… including Alex Rodriguez, who, very much against his will, made this deal possible.