For most Yankees fans the memory of signing another Japanese pitcher after the Kei Igawa disaster is terrifying.
In case you don’t know or care not to remember, the Yankees signed Igawa back in 2008 for the $46 million dollars. He lasted 16 games in the Bronx and spent the next five years in the minors.
The Igawa signing is debatably one of the worst made in baseball history, and an experience the Yankees seemed to learn from.
Honestly, after the Yankees did not go after Texas Rangers ace Yu Darvish back in 2011, I thought they finally made the smarter and safer choice.
Of course when that was two years ago, when the Yankees farm system had some very promising arms. But between significant injuries and overall lack of big league talent these youngsters cannot be counted on at the moment.
The Yankees starting rotation is a mess as there looks to be three major holes to fill, along with an ace who was ineffective last season.
– Starting with losing Andy Pettitte to retirement, again.
– Next is Hiroki Kuroda, who was the ace for the first half before falling apart. The about to turn 39-year old, Kuroda, is possibly going back to Japan but anyway signing him for another season doesn’t make sense. Kuroda was noticeably worn out for the last two months of the season, and his age doesn’t bode well that he will ever be that good again.
– And finally there is Phil Hughes. Hughes gave the Yankees every reason not to keep him in the Bronx after a horrific 2013 season. But this is the new Yankees where ineffectiveness translates into cheaper price, so God only knows what Hal Steinbrenner will try to pull here.
Even knowing all these obstacles, I am still not convinced that the Yankees should sign Tanaka, or any Japanese pitcher for that matter.
Without even taking Tanaka’s skill set into account there are general issues about signing Japanese pitchers that concern me, and especially when the team is the Yankees.
Here are three things to take into account:
1) Six man rotations – In Japan, baseball teams use a six man rotations so a starting pitcher makes about one start a week. The problem is it is normal for a Japanese starter to throw over a 100 pitches per start, and the days they do not pitch there is practice from dusk till dawn. So while Japanese players tend to have “mature” games at a younger age, they also have “older” bodies by the time they get here and there is only so much wear and tear a person can take. And the fact that the Japanese baseball season is only 144 games compared to 162 in MLB becomes irrelevant because of the rigorous practice employed in Japan.
2) Hitting for power - Japanese players have much smaller builds then MLB players in general, so there is less emphasis placed on home runs. Japanese managers’ focus on the fundamentals of small ball; like bunting, stolen bases, walks, sac-flies, and defensive skills. This isn’t a bad thing at all except when you play in the AL East. Facing the power line-ups of the Boston Red Sox, Baltimore Orioles and Toronto Blue Jays there is the possibility that a Japanese star won’t be effective because he is not used to facing that many home-run, patient hitters. Hence the rule that Japanese teams can only have four foreign players on their roster in total, two hitters and two pitchers maximum.
3) Smaller baseballs, stadiums and strike zone - The baseball used in Japan is smaller, lighter and wound tighter then the one used in MLB. Even though Japan has implored more similar balls to that of MLB’s over the last few years, it is still a work in progress and not the same. Also, the Japanese play in smaller stadiums and it has been said that the strike zone is called smaller even though technically it is supposed to be the same dimensions as in MLB.
I know these general concerns are just that, but the Yankees have to be careful here.
The team cannot afford another Igawa situation and I am not talking about financially, as his $46 million salary is not incorporated into the team’s payroll because he is a minor leaguer.
I am talking about talent-wise, as the Yankees do not have a loaded roster like in the past. They do not have the bats to hit themselves out of a cereal box, mind you a struggling and expensive foreign pitcher who has them in a 0-6 hole by the third inning.
The Yankees certainly do not have the prospects to temp another team to hand over a legit #2 or #3 starter if need be.
Nor do they have any rotation depth to buy time and plug into the rotation for a couple of starts, while figuring out how to fix or replace the now useless Japan import.
The bottom line is over the last few years the Yankees are not good at teaching new players how to play.
You can blame the issue on the big New York stage, the relentless media and fans or just overall bad scouting but the reason, at least at the moment, is irrelevant because it is not working. These problems are solvable but it will take more than one off-season to figure out.
So, in my opinion, for the 2014 season the Yankees should stick with what they know how to do and that is play the American free agent market.