As of right now, it appears that the New York Yankees and general manager Brian Cashman have completed the big spending this offseason. While the team revamped their lack of offensive production from a season ago by signing the likes of Brian McCann, Jacoby Ellsbury and Carlos Beltran, they also took a big hit by allowing Robinson Cano to defect to the Seattle Mariners. The Yankees did however, get the big fish they had longed for in starting pitcher Masahiro Tanaka.
Prior to Tanaka agreeing to his 7-year, $155 million dollar deal with the Yankees, the team appeared to be trimming down their roster full of outfielders, first by designating Vernon Wells for assignment, then giving him his outright release. The other extra outfielder, Ichiro Suzuki has been rumored to be involved in deals with the Arizona Diamondbacks and the San Francisco Giants. It’s probably a safe assumption that along with Hideki Matsui, Tanaka also had conversations with fellow pitcher Hiroki Kuroda, and the most successful Japanese baseball import of all-time, Ichiro. With Wells gone, and four outfielders on the depth chart ahead of him, does the Tanaka signing guarantee that Ichiro completes his current contract in pinstripes?
If anyone could help Tanaka acclimate not only to American baseball, but to help a young Japanese superstar adjust and handle the pressures of a mega-contract and the New York media, it’s Suzuki. Wouldn’t it be a bait and switch tactic now for the Yankees to deal Ichiro since Tanaka has been signed? Some roles on a team cannot be measured by on-field statistics, but rather by the influence they have on the players around them, the presence in the clubhouse, and how one carries himself with lofty expectations. Ichiro is practically considered a God in terms of baseball success, and the young Tanaka most likely idolized his new teammate as a child.
Hiroki Kuroda would’ve played a valuable role for the Yankees in 2014, whether Tanaka had chosen the Bombers or not. He now takes on the mentor role as well, teaching Tanaka the finer points of pitching to Major League hitters, preparation, and how to handle the American media. He’s the perfect pitching compliment that will serve Tanaka and the Yankees well, but it is Ichiro who will mold Tanaka into the next great Japanese superstar in the states.
Ichiro might be considered overpaid at $6.5 million for the 2014 season, and he may only play sparingly in the outfield, and used as a pinch runner. Sure, there are cheaper options who could probably use the big league experience such as Zoilo Almonte, but wouldn’t it make more sense to keep the Yankees’ newest import feeling like he has someone to turn to besides Kuroda? Ichiro knows the pressure and expectations of having an entire nation in his corner, and the Yankees have 155 million reasons to want to hedge their bets and make sure Tanaka is comfortable and confident in his first season in the United States.
Billy serves as the co-editor of Yanks Go Yard. You can follow him on Twitter @Billy_Brost.