It's almost spring, and that means it's time, once again, to play the expectations game.
No one in baseball may be more subject to the unfairness of that particular exercise in 2014 than new Yankees starting pitcher Masahiro Tanaka. Tanaka, 25, received the second-largest free agent contract of the offseason, a seven year, $155 million monster that was dwarfed only by the 10 year, $240 million deal that the Seattle Mariners gave to ex-Yankees second baseman Robinson Cano. Of course, the Mariners knew exactly what they were paying for -- the remaining prime years and decline phase of one of baseball's elite second basemen. Tanaka's future has a wide array of possibilities -- and not all, or even very many, of them are strictly worth the $22 million annual value of the contract he signed in the Bronx.
Baseball America has Tanaka as the No. 4 overall prospect in baseball going into the 2014 season (note: his ranking as a prospect is a formality due to his lack of experience in the majors). He occupies such a lofty position due in part to his previous success in the Japanese professional leagues and his prominence now as part of the Yankee organization, but mostly because of the raw, overpowering talent locked in his right arm -- the talent that got him the success and the contract in the first place. Baseball America thinks he has the stuff to become a No. 2 pitcher in the league "almost immediately," with two plus pitches -- his fastball and his splitter, the latter of which BA says is "arguably the best splitter on the planet," a slider that flashes plus, and a curveball. If Tanaka improves the slider to the point where it is a true plus pitch and gets more consistent with his fastball, the sky could be the limit for him. But even that doesn't develop, the Yankees are left with the makings of a savvy pitcher who could be very effective in MLB for a very long time.
There are a number of different projection systems out there that will try to put Tanaka's career numbers in Nippon Professional Baseball into an algorithm and spit out a mock-up of what his 2014 stat line will look like. Generally, these systems rely on previous seasons by comparable players to model their initial projections, which they then subject to more math until they get a plausible result. Projection systems certainly have their uses -- especially for those fans who indulge in fantasy baseball -- but it's already difficult to accurately predict how veteran MLB players' stats will fluctuate from year to year. Therefore, it seems dubious to throw someone who has never even pitched in the league into the process -- especially if the typical pitchers that Tanaka are getting comped to are Hisashi Iwakuma and Hiroki Kuroda, veteran hurlers who are lumped in with the new Yankee starter mainly due to their nationality and their use of the splitter.
Caveats about the nature of projection systems aside, most of them think that Tanaka will finish with close to -- but fewer than -- 200 IP and an ERA between 3.50 and 3.75, which in this run-scoring environment is the difference between a solidly good starting pitcher and one who is merely average. In a vacuum, just about any team would be ecstatic to get 192 IP of 3.65 ERA ball (or whatever) out of their 25-year-old rookie starter; that line would likely secure the Rookie of the Year Award. But then, the typical first-year player makes less than $500,000 a year -- not Tanaka's salary.
Ultimately, in order to enjoy Tanaka -- especially during his first year or two in New York -- Yankees fans are going to have to try and forget how much money he's making, hard as it may be. Not only did he walk into a perfect storm created by the new posting system and the Yankees' offseason desperation, but the contract he was given is predicated on the idea that he will continue to grow as a pitcher over at least the first half of the contract's life. That idea gets harder to stomach, of course, when the realization sets in that Tanaka can opt out of the deal after the 2017 if he so desires -- and if he's performed up to expectations by that time, there's absolutely no reason for him not to opt out even if he wants to return to New York, since it gives him leverage to negotiate even more favorable terms.
But Yankees ownership was going to spend that money somewhere. Payroll is actually down this year by around $30 million, which is to say that if Alex Rodriguez hadn't been suspended, the new money added this offseason almost exactly offsets the old money that came off the books. If it turns out that New York paid superstar money for a pitcher who is merely very good, fine; the Yankees are a license to print money, and young pitchers who are "merely very good" don't grow on trees.