Wednesday, January 22, 2014

So Much For Avoiding the Luxury Tax

A week and a half ago, I suggested that the Alex Rodriguez suspension gave the Yankees a shot at staying under baseball's $189 million payroll luxury tax limit, potentially saving them about $30 million in 2015-2017. Turns out they decided to give A-Rod's money to Masahiro Tanaka, signing him for $155 million for seven years with an opt-out after four years. 

Let's see...$155 million + $20 million posting fee divided by seven years...That's an average annual value of exactly $25 million that gets added to the Yankees' payroll in 2014 for luxury tax calculations. Nope, not getting under $189 million this year. Not even close.

Tanaka was sensational last year in Japan last year, going 24-0 (that is not a typo) with a 1.27 ERA and 0.94 WHIP in 212 innings. He struck out 183 and walked only 32. He led the Japan Pacific League in wins, ERA, WHIP, K/BB ratio, and fewest home runs and walks per inning. He allowed the second-fewest hits per inning and struck out the third-most batters per inning. His team, the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles, won the Japan Series 4-3, though Tanaka took the loss, his only one of the season, in the sixth game.

In short, Tanaka looks pretty good.

On the other hand, so did the Yankees' last Japanese free agent pitcher, Kei Igawa. In 2006, for the Hanshin Tigers, he went 14-9 and was second in the Central League in wins, seventh in ERA, sixth in WHIP, fourth in hits per inning, second in walks per inning, and sixth in K/BB. He signed a five year, $20 million contract. In his first year with the Yankees, 2007, he was 2-3 with a 6.25 ERA in 14 games. In 2008 he pitched in two games in New York with a 13.50 ERA. That's it. He did collect his $4 million annual salary in 2009-11, but spent the time pitching 68 games in the minors. 

The Yankees' other Japanese pitching import was Hideki Irabu, whom George Steinbrenner famously called a "fat toad." He signed a four year, $12.8 million contract with the Yankees in 1997 after leading the Pacific League in ERA (2.40 vs. league average 3.72), hits per inning, home runs per inning, strikeouts per inning, and K/BB. He was second in WHIP. (Actually, the Padres purchased his contract from the Chiba Lotte Marines, but Irabu insisted he's play only with the Yankees, so San Diego traded him to New York.) In 1997-99, he started 64 games for the Yankees, compiling a 29-20 record, 4.80 ERA, 1.36 WHIP, and a reputation for off-field controversies and injuries. The Yankees traded him after the 1999 season and he spent his last three years in the majors going 5-15 with a 6.31 ERA over 118.1 innings with Montreal and Texas. (In his last year, he led the 2002 Rangers with 16 saves. His 5.73 ERA and 1.43 WHIP are both the 15th worst ever for a pitcher with 16+ saves.) He committed suicide in 2011.

Tanaka, 25, is younger than the other two were. Igawa was 27 when he made his Yankee debut in 2007 and Irabu was 28 in his first Yankee start in 1997. And the recent track record with Japanese pitchers is impressive, as the Rangers' Yu Darvish and the Mariners' Hisashi Iwakuma (both signed prior to the 2012 season) finished 2-3 in the AL Cy Young vote last year. The Yankees obviously hope they blew their chance at staying under the luxury tax cap with a pitcher more like Darvish and Iwakuma than like Igawa and Irabu. 

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